Give me truffles!

We have waited a long, long time for a decent restaurant in our local village. Twenty years, to be exact.

When we first arrived, it was mediocre at best. Later it was taken over by a chef with a great reputation, mainly because of the “Assiette de fruits de mer,” which sounded splendid and looked authentic, but when you got down to it was little more than a heap of empty shells and big-headed langoustines with disproportionately small bodies, encased in something resembling razor wire. The place was cold as the grave, the decor as inviting as a pre-war hospital corridor, and the hostess shuffled around in grubby carpet slippers, raising a tepid smile if she felt like it, which on the two occasions we ate there, she did not. Dessert was either a piece of fruit or one of those unpleasant slimy things in aluminium moulds, taken from the fridge. A most distressing eating experience.

New owners took over. The sign announcing their proprietorship drooped lopsidedly from two pieces of wire, and the dead flowers in the window boxes inherited from the previous owner did nothing to enhance the appearance or whet the appetite. Consequently we never ate there.

After their departure the restaurant lay deserted for a year or so, the withered plants still languishing in the plastic window boxes, until towards the end of last year there were signs of life beginning to stir. The facade was painted. Potted palms appeared. The ugly cheap ice-cream poster vanished from the window, the plastic chairs from the pavement. However, it takes a long time for a bad reputation to be over-turned, and it’s taken several months before we dared to venture back.

It was a spur-of-the moment decision, taken at mid-day. We’d give the restaurant a try, with, to be frank, not very high expectations.

The first shock was the change in decor. I don’t remember what it was like previously, either because it was unmemorable or because it was too horrible to want to remember. But now it’s elegantly painted in shades of grey and white, with touches of pink. I cursed myself for not taking my camera, which I rarely leave at home. But as I said, we had few expectations today.

The restaurant is sparkling, bright, welcoming, with fresh flowers on each table. A carafe of red wine appeared as we sat down. I’d phoned ahead to ensure there was fish on the menu as we don’t eat meat, and as it is Easter Friday, the menu was meat-free.

To start we were served a creamy velouté of vegetables with cheese and croutons, delicately flavoured with a hint of nutmeg and cumin, I think.

Next came a mouth-watering smoked salmon tart, the plate garnished with dots of basil oil and red pepper oil. I was fairly certain I could also detect a hint of my favourite ingredient, truffle. M. Boullier, the chef patron, came to ask if we were happy with our meal. He was rather shocked to see the speed at which we were eating. :D  “Take it easy,” he said, “there is more to come.”

I asked about the truffle.

Yes, indeed, the red pepper oil also contained truffle. M. Boullier owns a truffle hound, and tells me there are plenty of the wonderful fungi in our local area, and even told us how to locate them. No, I am sorry, I cannot share this information.

He also owns a truffle farm, and keeps his entire harvest for use in his restaurant, bottled in Armagnac, Cognac, olive oil ……

The main course was a thick loin of cod, cooked to perfection, served on basil and truffle-flavoured potato purėe and garnished with fresh asparagus and a dressed salad. Again the plate was prettily decorated with delicate swirls and drops of flavoured purees and oil. When we had finished, M. Boullier remarked that it was a pity to leave them on the plate, and would we not consider mopping them up with a slice of bread? We did.

Cassandra, the pretty young waitress, delivered a tray containing a selection of 20 cheeses, including a variety of local goat cheese, which is one of the region’s specialities.

There is nothing “nouvelle cuisine” about the portions served at Le Bouton d’Or. They are generous without being intimidating, and we both doubted that we could manage a dessert.

But when it came we found room for the small poached pear in a thick glossy syrup of spiced red wine with a hint of chocolate, a foamy cream flavoured with lychee, a cube of confit ginger and some fresh strawberries.

The quality of ingredients was faultless. Nothing comes from a freezer, tin or vacuum pack. It is all sourced daily by M. Boullier from local markets. I’ll quickly mention that the meat comes directly from a couple of abattoirs thankfully some way from where we live, and poultry direct from local farmers. Fish is delivered at 3.00 am from a fish merchant.

We really were bowled over by this meal, not only the food and decor but also the enthusiasm and modesty of M. Boullier, who has worked at some of the greatest restaurants in Europe and owned four restaurants of his own. He has further exciting plans for Le Bouton d’Or, and we will definitely become regulars. We’ve eaten at many top-class restaurants around the world, but I can truly say that none have been more satisfying than our 14 euro lunch today.

 

 

You were wrong today, Mr Wrong

“A rainy day is like a lovely gift — you can sleep late and not feel guilty.”
― Elizabeth Jane HowardMr. Wrong

Unfortunately that is not always the case. Today was the date for TOH’s eye operation in Montmorillon. It was an early-morning appointment and is quite a way from us, so we had to be up at Horrid O’Clock. As is always the case when we have to be awake particularly early, neither of us slept well. I woke at 5.00 am, while TOH was awake on and off most of the night. Although we both set alarms, neither of us fully trust them, consequently we sleep badly, if at all.

Never mind. He would have a few hours to doze in the hospital, while Tally and I enjoyed another day of exploring the town. The morning started dull and grey, but as we neared Montmorillon the sun was making a timid appearance. Once TOH was dressed in a fetching, if somewhat sloppily fitted pink gown and he was installed in bed to await the operation, I skipped out of the door looking forward to taking some photos and walking Tally by the river.

Alas and alack, it was hammering down with rain and continued to do so for the five hours that we had to spare. Tally had a brief walk and wee on a small patch of very wet grass beside the river, then I parked the car in town and went to a café, where Tally behaved impeccably and was a subject of  great interest.

Back we walked to the car, in the rain, and sat there for some time, while I read my Kindle in between bouts of nodding off, and Tally dozed in the back. We drove around again in search of something that was worth photographing, but even the cherry blossom is at its resplendent best failed to lift the relentless grimness of the weather.

 

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Having had to abandon the idea of a riverside picnic, I settled for a pizza, freshly baked in a wood oven while I waited beneath a dripping awning, and eaten in the car.

To compensate for the miserable weather, however, I treated us to some of the famed Montmorillon macarons, pistachio flavour. Here they are, traditionally served by the dozen, glued to a sheet of paper.

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TOH reports no ill effects from his operation, other than feeling tired after a sleepless night. He is tucked up in bed. If we didn’t have chickens, I probably would be too, but they are a wilfull trio and refuse to go to bed until the last glimmer of light has left the sky, so I’ll be up for a few hours yet.

Tomorrow we have to back to the hospital for a check-up. Another early morning, another long drive, but there is only one word for the standard of cleanliness, friendliness and professionalism at Montmorillon hospital: Impeccable.

 

By the skin of my teeth

Since December, it has seemed as if our lives are dominated by doctors and hospitals. Neither of us have anything seriously wrong, nothing more than minor ailments, but thanks to the thoroughness of the French health system we’ve had numerous appointments with specialists, X-rays, scans and blood tests.

A recent head and chest X-ray showed that I had FIVE dental cavities! FIVE! How absolutely horrid is that? Strangely enough, until then I hadn’t had toothache for years, but once I knew about all those caves of decay, no day passed when I didn’t have agonising pain in one tooth or another.

I have never recovered from the trauma of my early visits as a child to the dentist. The surgery smelt menacing, the high-pitched whine of the drills terrified me, the man was unsmiling and rough and I hated him. The only part I enjoyed was when he pushed the thick rubbery mask over my face and nitrous oxide plunged me into a deep sleep. But sometimes there was no rubbery mask, just a slow, noisy drill that hit the nerves and made me leap from the chair.

After that, only excruciating toothache could drive me to a dentist.

When I first came to France, a friend introduced me to a dentist, reputed to be the best in the whole region. He was extremely handsome, with great, limpid brown eyes, designer stubble, a husky voice and limitless patience, and this somewhat offset the horror of having anything done to my teeth. I don’t know what happened, but stories began to circulate about him failing to keep appointments, marital difficulties, unpaid bills. One morning I set off for an appointment, only to pass him careering past me in the opposite direction and almost running me into a ditch. He was plainly in a great hurry, so I assumed that he would be back at the surgery in time for my appointment. But this was not the case. The receptionist said that I would have to see his new partner instead.

The new partner did not have nice eyes, designer stubble, a husky voice or any patience at all. I tried to explain that I was extremely nervous. He told me to sit down and open my mouth, and jabbed around inside it with that nasty metal hook thing, making me jump and gasp. Then he shoved a couple of wads of cotton wool into my mouth, a thing that blew air and another thing that sucked out saliva, and dived into the remaining space with a drill, hitting a nerve with uncanny accuracy. I yelped and jerked my head away.

“If you do that again,” he snapped, “I will put the drill straight through your mouth.”

Whether this was a warning or a threat was not clear. But I was quite certain that when he drilled into a nerve again, as he surely would, I would react, and end up with a perforated mouth. So I ejected the cotton wool, the air-blowing thing and the saliva-sucking thing, climbed out of the chair and walked out.

Happily a friend introduced me to another dentist, a lady who looks about 14, speaks perfect English and has every quality a dentist should have, patience, charm, a sense of humour and a large syringe of anaesthetic. I’ve been going to her for years, have had root canal treatment that was completely painless, and have no fear of her at all. I drive nearly 40 miles to see her.

Still, the prospect of FIVE fillings was rather overwhelming. When I told her about the Xrays, she looked astonished.

“FIVE cavities? That is very surprising. I can’t believe it. We’ll do some more Xrays now.”

After she’d looked at the results, she smiled. “They’re not cavities. They are old fillings that can look like cavities.”

I felt like breaking into song and dance with relief.

“Except for this one,” she pointed at a shadow on the screen. “This is a cavity. It’s in a bad place, very close to the gum.”

Cut the music.

She’s cleaned it out and put in a temporary filling. I’m proud to say that I was able to endure this procedure without anaesthetic and without yelping, although once my arm did involuntarily fly into the air, causing her to remark: “It’s lucky I don’t have a weak heart.”

Back in a couple of weeks for the next stage.

The city of writing and macarons

After a long and pleasant period of warm, sunny days, today is wet and cool. The forecast is for temperatures to drop sharply, accompanied by rain,  hail and a possible storm. The garden will welcome this change, as despite all the rain earlier in the year, the ground is already hard and dry.

We took full advantage of the good weather yesterday, following a hospital appointment. TOH is having a minor eye operation at the beginning of April in the lovely town of Montmorillon, a fair drive from home. We had an early meeting with the anaesthetist to go through a health check and complete a mountain of forms. The hospital is modern, shiny and sparkling, the staff friendly and helpful, and by the time we were finished there at 10.30 the temperature was already in the mid-20s. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and as it was TOH’s birthday we decided to treat ourselves and play tourists for the day.

One of Montmorillon’s claims to fame is its macarons. Unlike the flat, colourful discs commonly seen in the windows of patisseries, Montmorillionais macarons in appearance are more substantial and rustic, similar to the coconut macaroons found in English bakers. Rannou Métivier has been producing these luscious temptations in Montmorillon since 1920 

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A Montmorillon macaron, from Rannou Metivier

As we were going to lunch later, we avoided the lure of the macarons, and wandered over the bridge across the river Gartempe, up to the mediaeval part of town that is home to the Cité de l’Ecrit – the City of Writing. There are many shops, galleries and exhibitions to see in this part of town, but we wanted to get the most from the sunshine. During the summer Montmorillon teems with visitors, but on this spring day there were very few people around.

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Up the hill – Tally is there in the bottom right-hand corner.

Following a narrow path up the hill, past quaint little Dickensian shops , we  installed ourselves at a table outside a small bar/café. Out came the patronne, not to take our order, but to ask if Tally would like a bowl of water, which he accepted graciously before tipping it all over my bag. :)

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The colourful square where the parrot entertained us from the window – top right.

Our coffees arrived a few minutes later, and after a few hectic and tiring weeks it was delicious to just sit in the sun, listening to the lively conversation of a group of hippy-like French neighbours discussing, of course, food. Their conversation was primarily about sweet versus savoury, their favourite couscous recipes, and whether too much salt really was bad for health. From the nearby top-floor window of an ancient house an African Grey parrot sang and whistled, and occasionally shouted out. Across the road a coachload of little people arrived at nursery school, tiny cartoon-like characters, who ran and shrieked and chased each other around the playground.

After a lazy hour, I went to pay for our coffees, and on impulse bought a scratch card for TOH as a small birthday present. Imagine our surprise when he won not one prize, but two! Although the winnings only totalled €8, it paid for the coffees and the card, and left us €2 in profit.

Back down the narrow streets we meandered to a restaurant we particularly like, Le Roman des Saveurs overlooking the river Gartempe.

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On our way we passed a composed grey and white cat,  wearing a blue collar with a little bell, and soaking up the sun. Tally went over to investigate, and the cat walked up to him and bumped noses. While the two exchanged courtesies, a young woman walking past stopped in amazement.

“But I have never seen anything like it,” she said. “Look how gentle your dog is with that cat! That’s so unusual.” She walked on, shaking  her head and laughing at the dog who kissed the cat.

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In the restaurant, at our table overlooking the river, once again Tally took priority over us, as the waitress brought a bowl of water for him before taking our order. One of the pleasures of eating out in France is that dogs are generally welcome in restaurants. Tally settles down while we eat, and is no trouble at all. As usual the food was excellent, the service professional and friendly and the view beautiful and very French. TOH started with a small casserole of langoustines in a creamy sauce, while I had a parcel of goat’s cheese and chives wrapped in smoked salmon, garnished with a well-dressed salad. We each ordered the cod (also in a delicate creamy sauce), and a glass of the excellent Haut Poitou Sauvignon blanc. Coffee came two large chocolate truffles. The bill was 35, excellent value for a quality meal for two.

By the time we came out of the restaurant, the temperature had hit 28º C – 82ºF. A pair of pigeons were canoodling in a small alcove in the wall. On the bank of the river a group of kids sprawled in the sun, tossing food to the mallards.

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What a blissful day. :)

 

Time is running out

Today is 12th March.

By 11th April, it will be too late to enter the Good Life France’s Writing Competition with the chance to win a 10-week writing course from the acclaimed Writing Classes.co.uk as well as a choice of best selling books all featuring France. The rules are simple, see them here:

The Good Life France Writing Competition 2014 trophy The judges of the competition include Janine Marsh, the editor of The Good Life France, which, incidentally, is THE website for learning everything you need to know about France.

Julia Stagg, author of the hilarious and best-selling Fogas Chronicles inspired by her own bewildering experiences running an auberge in the French Pyrenees.

Stephanie Zia, writer and editor of Blackbird Digital Books

Kimberly Petyt, Paris-based author of The Paris Wedding, and doyenne of French wedding style

Deborah Lawrenson, author of the highly acclaimed mystery-thriller The Lantern and

last and least, moi-même.

I believe you’d have a hard time finding a nicer bench of judges, myself included. :)

Judging will be completely impartial, but just to say that anybody who sends me a large box of white truffles (not the chocolate kind), will probably win. Don’t forget to include your name in the large box :D

So take up your plume and parchment, and write. Anything at all with a French theme. Send your entry to  editor@thegoodifefrance.com before 11th April.

Good luck to everybody, and may your muse be with you.

Volte-face

This year’s first Formula One race is on the 16th March. I imagine that most fans will be desperately hoping that the new rules will bring back some excitement to the scene, because over the last couple of years the domination of one team has nearly killed interest in the sport for many of us. Where at one time I was glued to the television watching every lap, I’ve taken to reading or playing Angry Birds while listening to the commentary. So fingers crossed that we are going to see a change, otherwise I fear fans will be deserting en masse to more entertaining motor sports.

I’ve found myself thinking about Michael Schumacher a great deal since his accident. As a racing driver he was majestic, but I frequently criticised his ruthlesssness and unsporting behaviour. However, off the race track he has always been known as a devoted family man and massively generous to many charities. That he has suffered such terrible injuries in a ski-ing accident is really tragic, and I feel deeply for his family. 

There is much speculation about his current condition and whether or not he will survive, and if so, to what extent he may be handicapped. Anything other than a full recovery would be the cruellest stroke of fate.

So I’m making a complete volte-face and saying that I hope the ruthlessness and determination that won him so many races will bring him safely through his current fight. And I wish his family continued strength through their ordeal.

Adieu, Dobby

Our beautiful, adored Dobby died today.

He had never looked fitter than he had over the last month, his coat glossy and he was full of his usual bounce.

Yesterday afternoon he vomitted and became lethargic. This morning we took him to the vet first thing, and he was already in a bad way, cold and feeble.

Despite the best efforts of the vet, he died at 12.15.

We do not know the cause. It could have been poisoning, which we think unlikely, or a host of other reasons. We will never know.

Now we are burying him in the garden.

He was a very big dog, and leaves behind a very, very big hole in our lives.

Dobby