Why does The Little Black Book of Paris sit on my desk, as well as a small, handy version of Phaidon's The Fashion Book?
For the first time since coming to live in France eight years ago, I found the winter months here in the countryside to be very, very long. Why should this be, when October is one of the most beautiful months of the year in this part of southern France, still warm, with the countryside, after the fierce heat of summer, a tranquil, fresher place to walk or cycle. The animals are still in the fields under brilliant blue skies in November and, even though temperatures are dropping by then, we enjoy superb crisp weather. The valleys and hills look glorious, as the forests put on their amazing golden display, before the trees finally shed the last of their leaves.
As the first snow begins to fall higher up, the views to the Pyrenees are spectacular. December is pleasant too, passing without much of the fuss experienced elsewhere; the pre-Christmas madness doesn’t happen here. It is a time for slowing down, doing less outside as the days shorten to the winter solstice.
There is a feeling of being in harmony with the earth. As opposed to the manic craziness of my old life in Ireland, Christmas day here just means a larger than usual family lunch. The 26th is not celebrated, so everyone is back to work.
January can be bleak and we sometimes get heavy snow in the hills, but, a few weeks on and bizarrely, in mid February we often have a week or two of high temperatures and blazing sunshine, when we find ourselves wearing light summer clothes and eating lunch on the balcony. Then, in comes March with its many weathers; the temperatures plummet and it’s entirely possible to be snowed in.
The snow ploughs can get up the track to our tiny hamlet, but as ever, the advice during heavy snowy weather is to venture out only if you absolutely must.
Outside tables and chairs are uncovered and smartened up in April, in anticipation of months of Al Fresco dining. Hanging baskets, full of large green leaves go up. These will, in time, turn into a riot of fabulous red as the tumbling geraniums, named the King of the Balcony, burst into flower during May.
So why, with all these excellent things to recommend it, in a place with such fantastic scenery that people swoon when I tell them where I live, did I find the last six months went at a crawl? The reason is Paris. Yes, Paris, or rather, a serious lack of it.
Much as I adore living in Ariège Pyrénées, my heart and soul are so attached to that city that not seeing it regularly has an effect on me. My ideal life would be to have an apartment in Paris and our house here, and divide my time between the two. For most of my adult life, I have visited Paris several times each year. When I lived in Ireland I went regularly, getting to know it really well, discovering many of its secrets. Now, living in the same country, I seem to see my favourite city less and less. In the past year, I have only seen the City of Light once, and then just for forty-eight hours. It wasn’t enough.
Thank heavens I'm going back next month. I know now and I have to admit, that as lovely as everything is here in the Grand Sud, and as much as I adore Toulouse, the rose city, I long to be in Paris and want, indeed I will say need, to spend more time there, especially during those winter months.
In the meantime, my well thumbed, little black book of Paris sits on my desk, with its companion, The Fashion Book for easy reference… as I work on a master plan to find myself an apartment in the fabulous Seventh Arronddissement. And aptly, to get there, at least seven figures are needed.
Everything that can be said and written has already been said and written about the Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff. So, what better than a celebration of the food in the city we based ourselves in for the long weekend – Bristol.
On Friday, the second day of a four day trip that would take in the final in Cardiff - we lunched at the splendid Lock Fyne restaurant. Located towards the old area of the city, away from the glass and steel of the renovated harbourside area, this stunning eatery offers a haven of tranquillity in an old, sunlit, converted granary. The smiling staff are welcoming, wonderfully attentive, the food is exquisite and the bill doesn’t shock. Here, I found the perfect lunch for the day in question; a salad of exquisite lightness, bursting with flavour but full of vitamins and general goodness. The ambiance of the place and the delicious seafood on couscous salad made for a fantastically uplifting lunch. A lovely touch for me was that it was possible to have a glass of Prosecco as an aperitif.
And believe me, I truly needed those bubbles that lunchtime, because how I managed to eat at all after Thursday night, is beyond me. The night before, our first evening in the city, we had found the restaurant of restaurants, the stunning Chinese Cathay Rendevous. This place (including the building) is so magnificent, the food superb and the portions so generous that I would go back to Bristol now just to eat there again.
It was so fabulous that despite wanting to try all sorts of restaurants, we found ourselves walking towards it once again on Friday night. We had another amazing dining experience, with the top man remarking to me, ‘ah, you are not ordering the same as you did last night…’ (How did he remember what I had eaten the night before?)
Over the two nights I tucked into Prawn toasts, Satay Chicken, King Prawns with peppers, Scallops, green vegetables, ginger, spring onions, and all kinds of spices; I could not get enough of magnificent flavours. So many incredible, mouth watering tastes, washed down by lots and lots of Pinot Grigio; this restaurant is a marvellous place.
We had arranged to meet some friends who had travelled over from Dublin for the big match. I wanted to drag them back to the Cathay Rendevous once we got back to Bristol, but to my horror one of the party could not eat Chinese food; it appeared the spices caused some unpleasant reaction. Lucky me then, having eaten there twice already.
In the event, the match proved such a fantastic and uplifting occasion that it really mattered not a jot where we ended up. We eventually ate a splendid late dinner in the ambience of The River Grille at the Bristol Hotel, where we had based ourselves for four nights. The night took on a certain madness that carried on into the early hours; I was so thankful to only have to step into the lift and whizz up to our luxury room.
Sunday then, and with heads buzzing from the night before, a restorative lunch beckoned once again. This time we got a table in the Firehouse – a place I had tried to get six of us into for the night before but it had been fully booked, and now I know why. Once again we tucked into great food, including an enormous, ‘mop up the alcohol’ pizza for me with Larry promptly ordering and raving over the day’s special, a simply massive plate of roast pork, complete with crackling. We ran into a French rugby team also enjoying the food...
The last meal of the Heineken Cup weekend on Sunday night, and while I did really want to go back to the Cathay Rendevous again, because of living in a part of France where spices and oriental cooking is not the norm, we opted for different Asian flavours and went to the elegant looking Thai Edge.
This whole restaurant is a delight for the senses. The calm ladies who look after you are beautiful, serene and dressed in purple and gold, setting the tone for everything to follow. The menu is enormous, so extensive that you really need lots of time to read it. I ordered a Bellini, which came adorned with a delicate orchid, and began to study the list.
The food is described as being ‘a complete Thai culinary experience’and I cannot think of a better description for everything we ate that evening. I had never some across Gaeng Pa Gai (Jungle Curry)before; the description said Chicken cooked in chilli paste with fresh young green peppercorns, aubergines, bamboo shoots, snake beans and holy basil. It had a three red chilli rating and it deserved every one of them; this dish was simply glorious, the flavours utterly perfect.
Home a few days and withdrawal symptoms set in. I needed more Asian food and headed up to Toulouse, to the excellent Hyper Asia store where I stocked up, even finding the holy basil. I’ve tried to re-create some of the dishes and they were fine. That’s it though, just fine. Deep down I know that no matter how much I try, I will never be able to capture that special magic of those Bristol restaurants.
We ate in the locality of the Bristol Hotel and were only there for a few days; when the Heineken Cup is next in Cardiff I’ll make Bristol a week’s holiday…and spend more time in the wonderful St Nicholas Market, a real find.