Thursday, 6 November 2014

Argelès and Le Racou

I was in two minds about writing this as it feels like I'm sharing a secret. However, I'll tell you about one of my favourite places in Roussillon, the far corner of Mediterranean France where we spend our summer holidays. Le Racou is a small, unshowy beach resort just south of Argelès before the coastline becomes more rugged and continues through Collioure and Banyuls before it reaches Spain.

Argelès is a large sprawling place catering to mass tourism, but particularly well know for its campsites (previously used by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, but rather more luxurious now). It has a long, straight, wide beach and popular with families. There is an old town further inland, but the coastal resort Argelès Plage grew with the advent of the railways, and, if you scratch the surface and look away from the crowds swarming around the shops, bars and restaurants, there are several elegant streets of fin de siècle villas. All along the seafront are beautifully maintained gardens overlooked by some of the town's finest buildings. To those early holidaymakers stepping off the train from cool northern France, this must have felt like heaven.

In contrast, Le Racou feels intimate and tucked away, fringed by pine woods and nestling against a dramatically rocky promontory that marks the beginning of the Côte Vermeille. Le Racou is at the end of a sweep of straight coastline that runs pretty much all the way from the Rhône delta and the Camargue. Unlike the beaches further north, the sand is less fine and gives your feet quite a tingling workout, but it doesn't matter as you'd have been charmed by then.

Many of Le Racou's beach huts were built to temporarily house Spanish exiles during the 1930s, but now make desirable holiday accommodation. Just the one paved road accesses the village, otherwise there is a network of sandy tracks. A few old fashioned bucket and spade shops punctuate the main road, along with a boulangerie, a smattering of bars and restaurants and a couple of hotels. There are a few newer developments tastefully screened by the pines, but they don't spoil the laid back, uncommercial atmosphere.

Apparently previous communities have wanted to make Le Racou independent and, with its chilled out, alternative vibe, you can see why. It's great that it's managed to retain such a bohemian outlook. It reminds me of Le Canon on Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast with its oyster huts, and Gruisson further up the coast near Narbonne with its fisherman's shacks on stilts (where the movie Betty Blue was filmed) – distinctive, relaxed places with an easy nonchalance. Just what holidays should be all about.

Le Canon

Le Canon


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Banyuls Sangria and the Côte Vermeille

I've been visiting Roussillon regularly for maybe 15 years now, but I'm amazed that this summer was my first taste of a certain, rather potent local speciality – Banyuls Sangria. The effect it has on you is rather like an expertly mixed gin and tonic. It takes hold of you and presents the world as a better place. When you're already in a rather lovely place, the effect is all the more powerful.

We were driving south along the coast to Banyuls and just before getting there we stopped at an attractive little bay, the Plage des Elmes, for lunch. The beach bar here (Le Sun) is known for its Banyuls Sangria, so the non-drivers settled in happily. You have to remember how close you are to Spain in this Catalan corner of France, so this interpretation the drink makes a lot of sense. Basically, it's local red wine (ideally Collioure) with Banyuls and (for good measure) brandy. It's sweetened to taste with sugar and flavoured with orange. Either you can slice oranges and leave them to macerate in the boozy red wine concoction or add some orange juice. Some recipes suggest doing this the day before and allowing it all to macerate. When you're ready to serve add some lemonade. To be honest, ours didn't taste diluted at all, so leave it out if you prefer!

It was a treat to enjoy this within sight of vines and in such a spectacular location. Banyuls is on the Côte Vermeille (the Vermillion Coast), the craggy, intricate stretch of coastline where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean. Maybe it was the sangria, but it was amazing experiencing the landscape and the remarkable rock formations so intimately.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Duck, cherry and beetroot salad with Lambrusco

A couple of weeks ago we were treated to a particularly memorable meal at Quo Vadis that featured a main course salad of duck with cherries and beetroot, topped with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. It was the perfect dish for a warm summer evening. Grown up and satisfying, yet not too earnest – large pieces of crisp, salty duck skin were a deliciously naughty touch.

We had friends round for dinner last Friday and I recreated it as a starter. Flicking through my new copy of Diana Henry's A Change of Appetite I noticed a recipe for goat's cheese and cherry salad in which she macerates the cherries in brandy or grappa, along with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and lemon juice. I used kirsch, olive oil and apple balsamic (I don't yet have any white balsamic) and found the dressing didn't need any lemon juice, leaving them for a couple of hours or so before combining with salad leaves, sliced cooked beetroot and the flesh and skin from duck legs I'd roasted earlier. The crunchy breadcrumbs were made by roasting chunks of bread in the pan used for the duck. Once they had dried out I scraped the pan thoroughly to incorporate all the tasty duck bits and then pounded the toasted bread in a pestle and mortar.

We enjoyed it with a bottle of Albinea Canali Lambrusco Ottocentonero from the Wine Society (a steal at £7.95) – dry, fresh and appetising with plenty of lush cherry fruit and spot on with the salad. It was a steal at £7.95, but has (not surprisingly) sold out. However, their other Lambrusco would also be worth trying, but keep an eye out elsewhere, especially while dining out, for proper dry examples (not to be confused with the naff sweet versions of the past). Following New York's lead, interest in this 'forgotten gem' is growing in the UK where, for example, Ottolenghi restaurants report booming sales. Great news for summer drinking.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Greek hospitality

For the best part of 20 years, since one of my best friends hooked up with and then married Nikos from Athens, I have been at the receiving end of generous Greek hospitality. Our recent visit culminated with a memorable lunch at their weekend house on the coast in Nea Makri near Marathon. As is usually the case in good weather, the food is cooked on the grill in the garden – in this case squid and octopus for starter, followed by a large, family-sized sea bream.

The food is always wonderfully simple, showing off local, seasonal ingredients. My friends are fortunate in benefitting from a family-owned olive and citrus grove and they make their own vinegar and wine (like many Greek households). We made a vinegar and oil dressing for the squid and octopus, whereas the fish was dressed (anointed) with an emulsion of lemon juice and oil. We sipped some ouzo with the starter (octopus and aniseed are a match made in Mediterranean heaven) and salty, mineral Assyrtiko from Santorini was ideal with the fish. Plenty of bread and salad were passed around.

My friends tend to round off a meal with fresh fruit, so we climbed up onto the roof and picked apricots from the tree and ate them gazing across the water to the island of Evia. A distinctive and memorable end to our holiday. Efharisto poli!

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Food shopping with Nikos

It was lovely being reminded what great hosts the Greeks can be. Our friends in Athens have a family house near Marathon in a town called Nea Makri where they enjoy long relaxed meals at the weekend. This part of Attika is a large fertile coastal plain that has traditionally provided Athens with an abundance of fresh produce.

While there, I was taken food shopping by my friend Nikos – a real treat at the end of May as you can see from the pictures. For simple, seasonal food, you couldn't have asked for more. I was particularly taken by the smiley chap with the furnace-like rotisserie. Apparently, he usually sells out by lunchtime when he wheels it in and shuts up shop for the day. He opened it up for me so I could appreciate the white hot charcoal and delectable aromas. I look forward to trying one of those sheep heads another time. Maybe.

Acropolis Museum and Parthenon

Our recent trip to Greece was my first time in eight years, so a visit to the new Acropolis Museum was a priority. It opened in 2009, taking over from the original museum on the Acropolis near the Parthenon. It's an impressive building. As you enter the museum at the foot of the Acropolis on the southern side, you pass over part of the Roman city, a large archeological site in its own right, and parts of this can be seen in great detail through transparent floors.

The museum is spacious, cool and airy and flooded with natural light. At every turn you have stunning views of Athens, especially the Parthenon looming above. Don't overlook the beautifully situated café/restaurant with its imaginative menu and comprehensive selection of Greek wines (and delicious teas).

We then climbed up the Acropolis to explore the Parthenon and take in even bigger views across Athens towards the coast. While most people stick to the obvious areas, I love being able to glimpse behind the scenes at such a major archeological site and imagine what it must be like handling these extraordinary items. And, as you'd expect in Greece, you'll always find a cat lurking – just as things were getting a bit boring for a 7 year old!