Cooking up Some Magic

This post is a bit of an experiment…my blog originally started to be all about my travels on a Harley Davidson; it’s sort of morphed into something more to that.

Following encouragement of various Blog friends I’m trying something a bit radical for me, Blog Cooking!

Lets see how it goes, but I warn you now if you don’t like pictures of meat cooking or even the thought of eating it…look away now!

Now where was I?

Time always seems to go so fast when I am in France, it’s probably because I enjoy myself so much here. There are moments however, when time seems to stand still and almost go backwards, regardless of where I am in the world.

Last Sunday was just one of those moments and it all revolved around a game of Rugby, or to be more precise, Rugby Union; the game played with 15 in each team.

The occasion? Wales were playing Australia in one of the group games of the World Cup.

Regular Blogonaughts may remember that I am a passionate supporter of my nation’s rugby team. I take every opportunity I can to go to home games in Cardiff and if not I watch televised games.

Just like on Sunday. I may be in France and the Welsh rugby team may be in Cardiff, but thankfully French television are providing excellent coverage of all the World Cup games. At 12:15 local time I settled in front of the screen to enjoy.

The first 40 minutes were thrilling, Wales played some excellent rugby and deservedly went into half time with a healthy 23-8 lead.

Then came the second half and time stood still. Australia edged back into the match and I began to get decidedly twitchy; at 26-25 I was more than worried! Then a wonderful penalty kick took Wales to 29-25 and solid work saw them over the line to a well earned win!

I was more than a little delighted!!!

Mrs Dookes is well used to seeing my emotional rollercoaster in action when it comes to my beloved Wales rugby team. She deserved a treat and so I headed off to the kitchen, time to cook!

After boeuf bourguignon one of my favourite French dishes is Magret de Canard, seared duck breast.

When I was younger, the only cooked duck I ever seemed to come across in the U.K. was a wretched thing called “Duck à la Orange.” It was generally half a rather thin and pathetic bird cooked to death and smothered with a sticky marmalade like incredibly sweet orange sauce. We didn’t know much better, but even then I thought that there had to be nicer ways of serving duck than this.

Then I discovered my old mate Floyd who introduced me to French cuisine, life and food was never going to be the same again.

So let’s start with basics, this is a dead easy dish to make. You can find all sorts of recipes for it, but take it from me, simple is best!

First up you’ll need the following:

Shallots, I like échalion, the long ones.
Garlic, get the plumpest freshest you can find, not the dried sad stuff in the supermarket, or better still grow your own!

The best garlic available!


Carrots.
A sprig of fresh Rosemary.
A couple of Bay leaves.
Red Wine, I used a Côtes du Marmandais, tasty but not overpowering.
Sea Salt and crushed black pepper.

Oh yes and a duck breast! – This is obviously important as it’s the whole point of the dish, don’t skimp get the best you can. Here in France you can get lovely plump ones, with a nice layer of fat under the skin, that are big enough to feed two, the one I used weighed 450grammes.

So lets go.

First up, skin and roughly chop the shallots and garlic, I give the garlic a bit of a bash just to lightly crush it and release all those lovely juices. Scrape the carrots and cut into batons about 5cm long.

Turn the oven on and pre-heat to 100ºC

Heat some olive oil in a solid frying pan, rub salt and pepper into the duck breast and when the pan is good and hot, but not smoking, place the meat into it skin side down. Sear the meat until the skin is a lovely golden colour and the fat is starting to melt. About 3 minutes should do it, but if you don’t like it too bloody give it another minute then turn and cook the other side.

Looking good!

Remove the duck breast from the pan, wrap in foil and pop into the oven to rest.

Throw the shallots, garlic and carrots into the same pan and cook for about ten minutes until the shallots start to glaze and take on a light golden colour; don’t have the heat too high or you will burn the garlic and make it bitter.

Now for the fun! Pour in the wine, to start with I put in about 400ml and bring up the heat. You can flame off the excess alcohol, but with the cooking it will all just about disappear anyway. Add the rosemary and bay leaves then reduce for another ten minutes, stirring occasionally to stop it catching.

Once everything has nicely cooked down it’s time for a bit of French magic…

Almost all French home kitchen has a food mill, a mouli-purée, you can use a sieve if you don’t have one, but you now have to purée the lovely deep maroon contents of your pan.

The Magic Mouli

Put your prized purée in a fresh pan and return to a gentle heat. Season to your own taste, I like a lot of pepper. At the same time I added a couple of teaspoons of Confiture de Pruneaux d’Agen, which is a rather nice French plum jam, which is not too sweet and has a nice sharpness. If I was being more fussy I would have soaked some dried prunes in wine and used those, but sometimes life is too short!

Remove the duck breast from it’s resting place, put on a cutting board and admire.

….and admire.

Then cut it into diagonal slices, keeping a nice strip of skin and fat on each slice.

Divide up between you and your dining companion of choice, give the meat a nice dressing of the wonderful rich sauce. I served it with fresh green beans and my version of a croquette potato, again all very simple.

Push out the boat and accompany with a really nice, but not too heavy, red wine along with your very favourite dining companion, in my case Mrs D!

We had a bottle of Chateau de la Grille 2015, a Chinon wine from about ten miles away from where we are staying, lovely.

Well, there you are. That’s the first time I’ve ever shared one of my recipes on line and the first cooking blog post I also ever done….I hope you enjoyed it, I’ll get back to motorbikes soon.

Oh, look out, Wales play Fiji on the 9th October; Cymru am Byth!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

The Market

I love travelling by ship, no let me correct that… I love travelling. I don’t mind what form of transport it is, I was born a travelling man.

There is, however, just one problem with the overnight ferry from Plymouth to
Roscoff; it’s too quick. It always seems that by the time you get to sleep in your cabin, it’s time to get up and get up you will, to the early morning clarion call of traditional Breton music on the ship’s P.A. system! Now please don’t misunderstand me, I have the greatest respect for traditional music the world over, but to use it as a dawn chorus is almost a breach of basic human rights as viewed by the European Supreme Court!

Good Morning…at least it will be once the sun come up!


Anyway, we rolled off the ferry into a glorious September morning; at least it was going to be once the sun rose. I pointed the car South East and hit the road for breakfast with our friend Vivienne in Josselin, right in the heart of Brittany.

We pulled into the square facing the town hall and bagged the last parking space just before eight o’clock. Today is market day and the small town vibrantly comes alive as traders erect their stalls.

We hurried to Vivienne’s beautiful town house, just off the main street and delight at the table creaking with lovely things for breakfast. The smell of strong coffee hits me; my eyes are dry and gritty from the early morning drive, I need a shot of caffeine!

Vivienne fusses around the table, offering home made yogurt, and the Breton speciality, freshly cooked crêpes, thin pancakes that we are free to smother in honey or home made preserves. They always look deceptively nothing, yet satisfy even the keenest appetite.

“Pas de moto, aujourd’hui?” Vivienne teases. She knows that I am holiday with Mrs Dookes and motorbikes are not on the agenda! She is one of those special French ladies who even at just after eight in the morning looks a Million Euros, she must be well into her 50’s, but I’ve never had the nerve to enquire!

We laugh at my “Pas de Moto” situation and drink more coffee.

The church clock strikes and V looks up with surprise, time has moved fast.
“Alors, le marché! Allez vite ou le meilleur sera parti!” – “The market! Go quickly or the best will be gone!”

We laugh, but she is right the early bird not only catches the worm, but in France also the best produce from the market stalls.

Mrs Dookes and I take our leave and step out once again into the fresh autumn air. The market is only just getting going and many stalls are still in the build-up phase, but already the smell of cooking chicken and bacon fills the ancient streets.

There is a fish stall selling the catch from just two boats out of L’Orient, the trestle table creaking with prawns and mussels. Another catches my eye with fresh oysters, graded by size and quality; Mrs Dookes heads me off, there’ll be no oysters for me today, I ate a bad one some years back and I’m now permanently prohibited from eating them again…such a shame, I love them so much!!!

A simple trestle table holds, for me, the highlight of the market, local salad vegetables; frisée lettuce, calabrese, globe artichokes and carrots all still vibrantly fresh from the field. I can’t resist and head over.

Mrs Dookes appears with a tresse of smoked garlic, ail fumé, plus assorted onions and shallots. Now I’m off to grab some local saucisson sèche, dry sausage, we are going to eat well tonight!

It’s hard work this market shopping, time to stop, take a breather and relax in true French style; a beer for me and a Kir for Mrs D, we are, after all on holiday!

I sit at our street café table and take in the atmosphere; I love this way of life and this country.

Vive la France, vive la marché!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

An Ancient Bridge and Black Wine

Do you ever find yourself reading about a place, or maybe seeing something on T.V. and thinking, “I’ll go there one day?’

Only that day never seems to arrive.

Other things get in the way, maybe more exciting challenges or destinations come along, but that first place is still there in the back of your mind.

It nags at you, always there and maybe every now and then says, “Hey, how about it?”

Sometime on my travels that moment comes when I answer with an emphatic, “Yeah, why not?”

Special places, places I want/need to go are always in my mind.

After arriving in Mazamet, fresh from the Black Mountains I turned my thoughts further North and zeroed in on the ancient city of Cahors.

Cahors has been one of my special “Go To” places for a long time, a very long time.

In many ways the town is very special. It is the capital of the Lot Department and lies on the river of the same name. It’s location is pretty dramatic as it lies on the inside of a sweeping meander/mini-gorge. It’s old, very old, there was a settlement here before the Romans arrived in this part of France around 50BC. The Romans developed the settlement into a thriving city and evidence of them can still be found today in the form of various remains and monuments.

I wanted to visit Cahors for two reasons, an ancient bridge and the region’s wine.

The decision to keep to minor roads was spot on and we were rewarded, having the tarmac pretty much to ourselves. Following a leisurely trundle through delightful countryside, we arrived in Cahors mid-afternoon.

Being an other tourist magnet, though not anywhere near on the scale as Carcassonne, I expected the place to be a bit busy, it was, but nice busy and not affected by awful tatty souvenir stalls; clearly the City elders have much to be thanked for!

We checked into our Hotel, the aptly named Hôtel Terminus, right by the railway station. The place was wonderful, a real piece of 1930’s nostalgia with stained glass windows and wood panelled rooms; the service was right up there too. Add in that my room had a perfect view of the North end of the railway station, it couldn’t get much better; well actually it could as the owner let me put Harls in the garage for the night!

1930’s elegance.


Once sorted it was time to explore, specifically down by the riverside and the bridge I mentioned.

Pont Valentré stands on the Western flank of the city and spans the River Lot. Construction began in June 1308 and the bridge was opened for use in 1350, with the final work being completed in 1378. It has six arches and three square towers. Originally it was fortified at both ends, but sadly today only the Eastern tower survives.

There is a great piece of folklore surrounding the building of the bridge:

It is said that the Engineer in charge of construction was greatly annoyed at the slow progress of the work. To speed things up he made a pact with the Devil to get things moving. The pact said that if the Devil promised to carry out all the Engineer’s orders then the Devil could claim the Engineer’s soul.

Once progress was being made and construction was nearing completion, the Engineer began to regret engaging the Devil. As a last instruction he told the Devil to collect drinking water for all the workers using a sieve; the Devil had been tricked and the Engineers soul was safe.

In revenge for being tricked, it is said that each night the Devil send a demon to loosen the final stone in the central tower to ensure that the bridge is never truly finished and must be repaired everyday.

Between 1867 and 1879 a major restoration was undertaken and the then architect, Paul Gou, had a small Imp carved in stone and set high on the Centre Tower. This ensures that if the Devil should check to see that his instruction has been carried out he will be confused that the stone image is one of his team doing his nefarious work!

Well, it’s a lovely legend.

The Imp is set right up at the very top of the Middle Tower, I couldn’t get a shot of it, but fortunately by the power of Wikipedia I have this image to share; thanks to MathieuMD.

Walking across the bridge was quite magical and reminded me of my visit to Pont du Gard, many years ago. Here was an incredibly old structure still doing the job it had been built for and you can’t ask more than that.

The river was busy, there was a mini maritime festival going on, though it struck me that it seemed more about selling speedboats than anything else! People were having fun though and really that’s what is most important. I loved watching a couple of chaps who were kitted out with water jets and took turns in thrilling people with their gravity defying antics.

On the riverbank I found a lovely collection of model ships and I spent quite some time admiring them and chatting to their builders.

A beautiful model of the old SS France, a ship I remember seeing in my younger days.


Also on the riverbank were grape vines and that nicely brings me onto the famous Cahors Black wines!

Cahors has been a centre of viniculture since medieval times, in fact it was famous for it’s wines long before neighbouring Bordeaux developed it’s wine making industry. The signature wine for the region is the famous “Black Wine” which has its own AOC. The term “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,” AOC, translates as “Controlled designation of Origin” and was developed as a way of certifying the geographical origin for wine.

Cahors wine must be made from at least 70% Malbec grape and this is usually supplemented with Merlot and Tannat varieties. As is usual with wine, climate, location, geology and that famous French phrase “Terrior” all play a part to make the wine very, very, rich and gives it it’s deep maroon, almost black look.

It is absolutely gorgeous, velvety and full of dark berry flavours, but don’t drink too much if you want a clear head next morning!

“Gotta keep rolling gotta keep riding…”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Une Canicule Mk2 and So Quintessential

It’s been a scorcher in France today, officially “Une Canicule,” a heat wave!

Last night the television news was full of the expected temperatures for the next few days. Throughout the country temperatures are expected to be in the range of high 30’s to low 40’s Celsius.

I can report that the meteorologists were incredibly accurate.

It seems to me that I’m getting pretty good at attracting weather extremes when I’m on my road trips. There was snow over the Grimsel Pass one June day, snow on the Silivretta Alpine road in September 2107, not to mention on that same trip minus 9ºC over the Albula Pass! Oh and the high temperatures of the South of France last year, plus the other “Canicule” that you can read about by clicking here.

In many ways today was sort of a transit day, just over 200 miles in total from Cahors to Soulac sur Mer. We passed through lovely countryside, but honestly I couldn’t wait for it to end, so energy sapping was the heat.

I drank a few litres of water and just sweated it all out of me…you really do not want to smell my riding gear this evening!

On one of my water stops I took a photo of the air thermometer on Harls; it was a bit hot in the Medoc!

Thats about warm!


Finding roads with shade was a bonus and at times I had to smile about a standing joke that Mrs Dookes and I have about French roads.

Many years ago on a Brittany Ferries sailing we were reading an article in their “House” magazine. You probably know the sort of publication, glossy and with little articles to pass a few moments before – Pow! – Here’s another advert for something you can/must buy on board!

Anyway what the article was about I cannot recall, but there was a nice photograph of a tree lined road with the title’ “A Quintessential French Road.”

I fell about laughing, it just caught me in a silly mood, but honestly in all the years that I’ve been visiting France I’m still trying to find that “Quintessential” one.

No, only a junior tree lined avenue…


Now it is true that in France you can find many roads lined with trees, often Limes or Planes. They may be lovely, but if you consider just how many kilometres of road there are in France the tree lined ones make up a very small percentage and they certainly cannot be accurately described as “Quintessential.”

Do towns count?


Incidentally, there seems to be no clear source of where the trees lining the road idea came from. Ask some folk and they say Napoleon Bonaparte, others will tell you it was the Romans, whilst many swear that the nobility were responsible. It’s a lovely mystery.

That’s more like it!


All is not good in the world of tree lined Avenues though.

The French “League Against Violence on the Roads, ” yes honestly, claims that trees are responsible for one in eight road deaths, because they reduce visibility and cause greater injuries when people crash into them and they want them cut down!

Needless to say the many of rest of the French population have a different view. My mate Gilles thinks that as you pass trees they make you slow down because you then realise how fast you are going….hmm, I not sure of that Gilles, all I know is that I enjoyed the shade of them occasionally today!

Very shady, nice!


Vive les Arbres, Vive La France!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

These Pyrenees Are Funny

They are almost predictable for being unpredictable and if that doesn’t make sense, let me explain.

The geography of the Pyrenees mountain chain is interesting. They run roughly West to East from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and effectively cut the Iberian Peninsula off from the rest of Europe, according to some of my Spanish friends this is good, but for now we will ignore that bit!

By lying where they are, they act as a very effective weather-triggering machine; the damp winds blowing in off the Atlantic have nothing better to do than to drop all their water on the Pyrenees! This then creates what today is fashionably called the Foehn Effect, but when I was studying geography we called it a rain shadow. The most interesting thing about the Pyrenees is that their rain shadow can move from one side of the range to the other.

In other words, as my mate Gilles who is Pyrenees born and bred says, ”If it’s raining in France, go to Spain!” Of course the opposite applies if it’s raining in Spain.

I’ve always humoured Gilles on this but the other day I had the opportunity, no make that need, to test his theory out.

I woke to low cloud and swirling mist. The previous days jaunt over the big legendary Cols was a pleasant memory and thank goodness I wasn’t planning to try to ride them today.

Col d’Aspin


I did need to cross three other big ones though, Col d’Aspin 1489m, Col du Peyresourde 1569m and Col de Portillon1320m; the trouble was the cloud base was down to around 1000m!

Col de Peyresourde, legendary and wet!
Respect to the cyclist.


When you are doing a road trip in the way I do, in such circumstances there are two options.

1. Give up and go somewhere else.
2. Suck it up and get on with it.

Obviously if conditions were to make things really dangerous I would apply option 1, but as yet I can’t over the years really remember having ever done so! I’m not a “give up” sort of chap.

Peyresourde, apparently there’s a wonderful view here!


On that basis, it was option 2, as it always is!

Handlebar Cam. Yep, sometimes I wonder why too!


Yep, it’s not worth dwelling on what the roads over both Cols were like; it was foggy, it rained, it was slippery and not much fun. We did it though and can always remember that in spite of adversity the job was completed; anyway it’s a good excuse to go back when the sun is out!

The last bends on Portillon.


Portillon lies slap bang on thee Spanish border and once we dropped down into the valley one thing was noticeable, no rain! Gilles may be right after all.

I had a banker in my pocket, there was a pass further into Spain that I had considered climbing, Port de la Bonaigua 2072m, seriously higher that the others; lets go see if the theory really stacks up?

It does.

This is more like it!


A couple of kilometres down the road and out popped the sun. We had a glorious couple of hours wheeling around the slopes of Bonaigua and taking in the views an all in fantastic warm sunshine.

Port de la Bonaigua


Gilles, I owe you a beer!

Port de la Bonaigua


I think the photos speak for themselves, but I wanted to show the handlebar cam shot, because that was really all I could see!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

A Gastronomic Pilgrimage

My old and late lamented mate, Floyd, once said that a Cassoulet could be made very complicated or very simple, but to get the best out of it keep it simple…..and go to Carcassonne!

Well after years of talking about it, I’m here in the medieval city of Carcassonne.

It’s a place that Mrs Dookes loves and somewhere that I’ve planned to visit for years, but now that I’ve made it, I’ve got to say that I’m not greatly impressed. Underwhelmed is the word that come to mind.

OK, hands up, the reason I’m not a big fan is that the place is crawling with tourists. Yes I know, I’m here as, gulp, “a tourist,” but I’m a tourist that has ridden the high Cols and looked for solitude not to gawp at countless shops selling the same “Made in Taiwan souvenir of Carcassonne” crap!

That’s better, I got that off my chest…!

I’m here on serious business, Cassoulet business!

For those that don’t know what a Cassoulet is, I suggest you go Google, or better still go try a real authentic one, but you won’t get one like I just had!

I did what Floyd said and came to Carcassonne and more particularly to Le Maison du Cassoulet restaurant.

Now MdeC is like all the very best French restaurants, on the outside it looks plain, on the inside it looks dull….but the food does all the talking!

The place is without doubt “The” centre of the Cassoulet world.

I walked through the door as they opened at 19:00hrs and was promptly shown to the table of my choice. After enjoying a beer brewed in the city of Carcassonne, my order of Cassoulet Gourmand appeared along with a local full-bodied Corbières Rouge.

Fantastic doesn’t come close as a description; Floyd was right!

And now dear Blogonaughts, I must retire to reflect on the velvety glory that a perfect Cassoulet brings to a hungry Hogrider. It is mine to wallow in the knowledge of a job well done, a pilgrimage fulfilled….for you, like my mate Floyd said, “To get the best out of it keep it simple…and go to Carcassonne!”

Here’s to you Floyd, I miss you, but thank you for all the food and the good times!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

“There’s Something Wrong With Our Bloody Ships Today!”

So said Admiral Beatty at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 as the Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet clashed in a bloody, yet indecisive battle in the North Sea near the coast of Denmark.

Well…. fast forward to today and again there is something wrong with a ship, my ship!

It’s nothing unexpected, the MV Pont Aven has been beset with problems in 2019. Earlier in the year she suffered a fire in one of the engine rooms and then just as she got back into service a steering gear problem caused an extended visit to dry dock for repairs. She came back into service only last Friday.

As a result of the engineering issues, Brittany Ferries have been forced to modify the timetables for Pont Aven as she’s running at reduced speed.

This is undoubtedly an issue for some folk, but for me, with little reason to rush it’s OK. Our trip across the Bay of Biscay may be taking a few hours longer, but the sea is relatively calm the sky is blue and all is well in the world.

My engineering mind does however ponder exactly what is going on with the ship? Our wake is decidedly “lop-sided” and it seems to me that one propeller is doing the work whilst the other is seemingly along for the ride!

If you look at the photo, you can see where the cavitation (that’s the white frothy water) is stronger on one side than the other; that means that the propeller on that side is working harder. Pont Aven is fitted with twin variable-pitch propellers and I would normally expect two prop wakes.

Just a little thing, but I find it interesting!

Catch you soon.

Dookes