Friday, May 20, 2016

A French Cooking Class

So here in France, what is the prevasive passion among the entirety of the population?

Food and Wine

(Though for some, not in that order.) Being avid foodies ourselves, we knew we had to look into some local cultural experiences that included this, our most delectable hobby. Enter: Cooking By The Canal du Midi - a one day school with a classically trained culinary genius (Heather), and her fabulous husband David, in the lovely little hamlet (or nearly there) of Millepetit, right on the banks of the Canal.

Located just beyond the olive orchard, and down a majestic, albeit bumpy, tree lined lane lies a full working farm, from which were gathered the vast majority of our ingredients only the evening before our class. Fresh locavore-ism at it's finest! Besides the bowlful of gorgeous brimming veg (artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, courgettes, runner beans, spring onions, fresh garlic, sweet tomatoes...) there was olive oil from the grove next door, and wines from the vineyard across the road.

After a quick tour, we all reluctantly put down our cameras, excitedly fastened our aprons around our waists, and tucked our towels into place, ready to begin! Heather was an absolute whiz at planning out how everything should go, and with our class, she had quite the extra challenge. Between us, we had: gluten allergies, dairy allergies, two vegetarians, and a lady on FODMAPS diet. But she saw it all as just a new adventure to be had, and my goodness, our menu was a smashing success!!!

As we dove into prep work: chopping, peeling, beating, scraping, separating, roasting, confit-ing, braising, stuffing, lolli-popping, we were busy every moment! But during it all, Heather kept us afloat with fantastic tips and great direction. Dave even gave us masterful instruction on preparing artichokes properly, a skill that has eluded me these many years!

Enjoying conversation with fellow students all the way, the day just FLEW by! By the end, we were tired and HUNGRY in the best way.

And can I just pause here:

Those of you with food allergies will very much understand what I mean when I say that social eating (i.e. having a meal anywhere but your own home) can be a very sad, lonely, stressful experience. Especially for those of us who simply ADORE food. To have to watch other people eat something you'd kill for right in front of you, is somedays akin to torture. To have a host prepare a meal that you can't partake of, and require you to bring your own grub, feels alienating. To have to gamble with food at a restaurant, buffet, or picnic, can often cause as much gastric (de)stress and anxiety to your system as eating the off-limits food would have in the first place!

But when someone goes out of their way to show you kindness and consideration by researching your dietary needs (heaven knows we don't choose them!), and prepare safe foods for everyone to partake of together, is the. most. amazing feeling in the world! It makes you (me!) feel loved and included in all the best ways. And food prepped with that extra amount of heart just tastes 1,000 time sweeter.

Heather was just such an angel. Our menu would have rivaled that of a Michelin Star winner, and to think we actually had a hand in the prep, and didn't ruin a thing! Each and every bite was sensational. Though the weather was threatening rain all week, we woke Thursday morning to blue skies and sunshine, under which we enjoyed our feast, picnic-style, right on the banks of the canal.

We enjoyed:

Canapes of duck ham and quince, truffle tartes, gazpacho, roasted tomatoes with creme fraiche, three different dips (sun dried tomato, brebi cheese, and artichoke)

First Course of souffles on a bed of caramelized onions and asparagus three ways

Second Course of roasted guinea fowl stuffed with a homemade spinach ricotta moussilline, fondant potatoes, and deconstructed ratatouille with an amazing pepper sauce and the plate was finished with a delicious gastrique and crisped sage leaves

Third Course was chocolate cakes with strawberries and creme fraiche sorbet

Let me just tell you. We left there fat and happy.

So to anyone planning a holiday to the South of France, I would highly encourage you to include a day (or two) of cooking school in your schedule. It was one of the highlights of our trips, and we just can't wait until we have the opportunity to do one again!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sometimes Days Don't Go As Planned...

...Though in this case, we didn't really have any plans to begin with...

When we woke up this morning, the weather was calling for a dry top half of the day, and then for showers and thunderstorms to kick up around 3 o'clock or so.

We enjoyed a nice sleep-in, a delicious breakfast of 6-minute eggs, sauteed courgettes (zucchini) wild strawberries (of which you've never tasted the like), tiny sweet melons, and local cheese, and then we gathered ourselves together and set out for La Cite (the old city).

Incidentally, we're staying in the Bastide District, or "new" city which dates to around 1300. New indeed. An easy walk from Rue Voltaire, we made it across the bridge in 15 minutes or so, and it seemed the weather would hold for us!

For an hour or so we poked around the nooks and crannies of your typical European walled town - with twists and turns, steep uphills and downhills, breathtaking views and architecture, and a spectacular cathedral at the pinnacle of the city. We were keeping an eye on the time, but a good hour and a half ahead of schedule (WHY do we put our faith in weathermen???) the first few drops began to fall. Thinking they would soon pass, we continued meandering around until the clouds started dumping in earnest. Our main concern was our cameras, which we had brought out unprotected. Cursing the fact that we had left a perfectly good umbrella along with our jackets safe and dry back at the apartment, we trudged on a few streets more.

Coming upon lunchtime, we optomistically thought ducking into a restaurant might be a good idea to see if the storm would pass, or at least let up a bit. - Against both of our better judgement (which we later found out when comparing notes afterward - TIP: compare notes before making decisions) we settled on a cheap-ish place out of sheer desperation. With no atmosphere, subpar food that didn't settle well with either of us, and a card reading machine that wouldn't take our credit card (grrrr....), we left disgruntled, feeling slightly sick, and still wet. The one good thing that came of it was that they gave us plastic bags to protect our cameras. And admittedly, their French onion soup was rather tasty.

Halfway back home, the wind pick up (brilliant!), and as the rain responded in kind, in 5 minutes time, I was soaked through to my skivvies. Jesse noticed my shivering, and offered to run and pick up the car while I waited in a cafe and had some tea to try and thaw. I happily (well, no, happily was no longer a part of my emotional vocabulary at this point) took him up on his offer, and waited on my hero to come and rescue this damsel in distress! He did so half an hour later with a warm car, jacket, and change of shoes (bless him), and we drove the short ride home.

Glad to be back and in dry clothes, we thought our misfortunes for the day were over when we received word that: 1. A parcel we had mailed out before we left was stuck in customs and demanding $35 ransom, 2. That I couldn't log onto my wireless account to make some important changes because they couldn't verify my IP address, 3. That we had left Jesse's prescription sunglasses in our tour van yesterday which is based a few towns away, and bringing up the rear at number 4. That we had also left our good thermos at either the -1 star restaurant, or my storm shelter cafe in our haste to get home.

SO, I have decided that the best course of action is to take a very long hot shower (thank goodness for a tankless water heater in a very old building!), eat some of the marzipan my husband got in the square (adding some sugary insult to injury for my poor disgruntled stomach - I entirely blame the cassoulet at afore-mentioned restaurant - and hit the sack as early as possible, before anymore misforture could possibly add itself to this day.

But hey, I suppose that if you're going to have a terrible-horrible-no good-very-bad day, one in the South of France is infinitely better, and slightly more romantic, than a plain old bad day at home. Oui?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Minervois

Today we had the delightful pleasure of joining an Vin en Vancences Epicurean tour of the Minervois region.

Though it threatened rain, we had dry weather and relatively warm temperatures up until we stepped foot back on land ready to head for home, when the first few drops of the day began to fall. We were so thankful it held off for us! But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Our day started at 9am when Kate picked us up just outside of our rental flat. Doesn't get much better than curbside service, eh?! Once we were properly settled in the van, off we went to pick up the remaining three tour members for the day in Le Cite: a dear Australian couple in the middle of a six week holiday, and the wife's mother, who was still getting along quite sprightly and was up for anything, even being seemingly near 80!

The first stop on the tour was a fantastic open air market in Olonzac which seems to rotate towns in the area based on the day of the week. We hit on a Tuesday, and lucky for us, there was a wonderful offering to be had! Meats, cheeses, olives, eggs, honey, all kinds of regional produce, spices, Asian food trucks (!), clothing, housewares, you name it! Our guide took us around to each stall on the food street of the market, and chatted with the farmers and artisans while finding us the most delectable samples. She explained to us what things were, where they were from, and what was worth the buy, even stocking up on some favorites for herself and an upcoming dinner party she has planned for this weekend.

After maybe 20 minutes time to wander around on our own and make some purchases, we all rendezvoused at the pre-appointed cafe, trooped back to the van, and were on our way to stop #2: a tiny family run winery in Buaefort with Christoph the winemaker at the helm. He is a third generation winemaker, and becoming a truly natural vineyard producer with all organic practises, and nothing at all added to his wines. They were truly unique and special, and we so enjoyed our time with him!

Time for lunch, and we headed off to a little unassuming brasserie in a teensy little postage stamp of a town called Aigne. The two resident pugs greeted us at the door, and spent a good portion of the meal under our table hoping for scraps. By the looks of them, they had successfully induced many a customer to let a crumb or two (or ten) "drop" from their plates! Our selections did not disappoint: I enjoyed the smoked salmon with a delightful dill herbed lemon aoli and salad as a first course, and a nicely herbed meaty white fish risotto for my main. Jesse had a slow cooked sardine dip for firsts, and a juicy burger with a French twist for his main. Dessert consisted of poached pears with chocolate, ice cream, and whipped creme fraiche, and a small regional cheese selection, which we shared.

Refueled and rested, we were off to Minerve; an impromptu stop along the way to enjoy the splendid views and darling quintessential town. The stroll through the center and over the bridge was invigorating and lovely - just what we needed! Truly worth the slight trip out of the way, Minereve lives up to it's booking as one of the most charming towns in the Languedoc. Even more spectacular though is the setting: situated straight over a stunning gorge, replete with a rushing river, and naturally carved tunnels in the rocks.

From there, we headed over to an olive oil factory in Bizes where Virginia tried out her English on all of us non-French speakers - doing a really nice job of it too. We got a tour of the presses, a little lesson about how they grow, pick, and sort the olives, and then enjoyed a tasting of three of their distinctly different oils and fresh table olives. All unique and delicious in their own way. The crowd favorite was the local Lucques.

Last stop was such a lovely way to end the day: a cruise on the Canal du Midi embarking in Le Somail. Lined with plane trees and yellow wild iris, this serene float down river was a fitting finale. We enjoyed learning even more from Kate about the region and its bounty, and talking and joking with our fellow tourees and the personable captain of the boat.

Back to Carcassonne we came to a restful early evening in, after a spectacularly full and memorable day.-

Jesse's ready to book another tour for tomorrow ;-)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Gourock Highland Games

The weather forecast threatened rain, even thunderstorms. But from the time we woke up, to the time we'd dressed and breakfasted, the hourly had changed from 85% chance to 45%. Still dubious, we grabbed our jackets and umbrella and headed out the door to begin our hesitant trek to Gourock to celebrate the opening of the Highland Games Season of 2016.

An easy 40 minutes from our B&B in Paisley, we arrived at the games with barely 15 minutes to spare. Unsure of exactly where the venue was, we had our windows down, and you could hear it...a mile away...the sweet drone of the pipers was carried to us on those sweet Scottish zephyrs as a rallying cry, a call to all the Highlanders to gather from near and far.


And not from the weather (though the day did start out quite brisk). Bagpipes have always been a form of music that speaks to my deepest soul. When bagpipes play, I weep. It's a cause and effect you can set your watch by. And my gracious... six hours straight surrounded by that glorious sound! I was in heaven. And vacillating between a quivering lower lip, silent waterfalls, my entire body quaking with pent up excitement, head to toe thrills, and full on ugly crying, my emotional range had run a veritable marathon by nightfall.

We revelled in all things Scottish...the strong man competition, the Scottish dancers, the Angus beef, the drum majors, and the pipes. Oh, the pipes! At any given time there was nothing short of four different melodies going. Between the bands competing, the pipers that were playing for the dancers, and those either warming up or entertaining the crowd, I didn't go a single second wanting for the sweet music of the Highlands as the never ending recognizable melodies added the most perfect soundtrack to our day.

Fun fact: I walked down the aisle to meet the love of my life at my wedding to bagpipes.

Watching the junior competition, then the senior. The drum majors of all shapes and sizes (the youngest looked about 7 or 8 and all of 40" tall, wee little thing!) took the field one by one, and the drum lines twirled their fuzzy little mallets that impressed us all. Highshool bands, police bands, bands of renegades, bands of smart laced hipsters, bands of misfits, they were all represented and gave quite rousing performances, every one! My favorites seemed to be bands of diversity. Where old timers played alongside college kids and youngsters of 10; men, women, girls, and boys. All united under the gloriously melancholy drone...the song of the pipes.

Even using the event-a-loo (porta potty) was a nigh-on spiritual experience, as one band warmed up behind the loo line, and another practiced in front. I almost didn't want to come out. But then the smell won out and broke my solitary reverie...

To conclude the games, a fitting crescendo to the day as all of the dozens of pipe bands (I counted 55 entries in the competition) marched onto the field together for a mass rendition of Scotland the Brave. And I didn't breathe the entire song. Goosebumps stood at attention. Waves of tingles rippled up and down my spine. And the few last drops of water left in my body rallied their way up and out my tear ducts, running over my cheeks following well-traveled paths.

While neither one of us have much of any Scottish blood to speak of in our family trees, when we immerse ourselves in this energetic, lively, convivial culture, we only wish we could honorarily adopt ourselves into a ancient Highland clan...

If only to be able to wear a family kilt with pride, and not as a poser.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On The Shores of Loch Fyne

When we realized it was going to be possible to head back to Europe again this year, first on our list was a tiny little fishing village in the west of Scotland, named Tarbert. Unassuming, yet dripping with charm, we spent a few short days there last fall. Perched upon the rocky coast of Loch Fyne sits Stonefield Castle. Throughout our many travels there are a few special places (I could count them on one hand) that have just nailed the art of true hospitality. Places that you instantly feel welcomed and at home...a part of the family. Yet at the same time, an honored guest for whom the staff will go out of their way to spoil you like royalty.

Stonefield Castle is just such a place.

We requested, and were granted our same room (#23) which has the best view in the castle over the loch and gardens, and our preferred queen sized bed. If you're the type that needs the real estate that a king affords, #24 right next door will oblige. The rooms have been recently renovated, but still maintain rich Highland charm with their plaid woolen chairs and bed scarves. The bathrooms are modern and well appointed, though as with much of Europe, you will not find washcloths as standard fare, so if you need one in order to feel actually clean (raising hand), bring a few along. #freetip

We spent the day today enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the dining room which overlooks the loch through a full wall of windows. A hybrid cook-to-order and buffet, it will fill you up for the first two-thirds of the day, easy. We recommend the Full Scottish, Haddock, and Kippers (with poached egg added). The fish are caught daily from the loch, and the eggs come from a farmer down the road. Can't beat the freshness! Our room rate had breakfast included in the tarrif.

After our repast, we went for a wee walk down to the shore, explored a positively enchanted forest complete with babbling brook, and then veered off to cross the causeway and hike around a nearby uninhabited island. Springtime has really been a lovely time to visit - the grounds are positively overflowing with blooms! Rhododendrons are the shrub du jour and not just any old rhododendrons, but 30 foot high specimens! Cedars, wood hyacinths, shamrocks, daffodils, candy tuft, daisies, moss, late blooming heather, and all manner of rock flowers pepper the path. A highlight of our walk was crawling out on a craggy rock just overlooking the loch and enjoying the afternoon tea we brought along (when in Rome...).

Back at the hotel, we spent some time reading, blogging, bird-watching, boat-watching, and chatting with other guests. The atmosphere among patrons and staff alike, is delightfully family-ish. It's so easy to strike up a conversation! Adding to the homey feel is the fact that it is a dog friendly hotel, complete with resident chocolate lab that greets you happily at the front door.

For dinner we opted for the bar menu, which carries some of the same five-star dishes as the dining room, but for a fraction of the price. Service has always been exemplary at Stonefield...with Sean being a special favorite standout who truly gives the whole establishment's staff a fantastic face.

After a leisurely meal enjoyed overlooking the loch, we retired to our room and declared it a nearly perfect pleasure of a day here on the shores of Loch Fyne!

Can't wait to do it again tomorrow.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A New Home

Wow! It's been a long time, hasn't it?! For those two or three of you who still read/look for posts here at Windy Poplars, I wanted to let you know that you can find my new blogging home over on my photography website (where all my energy has been going lately!). I do still hope to blog some thoughtful/lifestyle posts over there, not just pictures, so stop by and see me! My main website link is:

Then just click on "Blog" in the menu bar! See you soon!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Happy At Home

While I am a woman who wears many hats, I am most content when I am caring for my home. I simply love the comfort found in (most of) the day-to-day business of making our nest an inviting and cozy place to be. 

A place that nourishes and restores us.

Planning, shopping for, and making wholesome meals. Folding towels. Making up the bed with crisp, sweet smelling linens. Keeping our hampers empty, and our drawers full. Watering the vegetable garden and dreaming of the fresh produce to come. Collecting armfuls of flowers from the yard to grace our tables and nightstands.

Of course, there are chores I dislike. And I find my paying jobs, more often than not, competing with my never ending housekeeping to-do list...

But when I happen upon a rare day full of the duty and delight of fluffing our little nest, I find such peace, joy, and accomplishment fills my soul once we both sit down to supper in the evening. It makes me realize again:

This is one of the callings my heart was made for.