Monday, May 26, 2014


     French diners value fresh ingredients, careful preparation, and putting aside sufficient time to enjoy a meal. As a result, you have to work hard to find a bad meal. We've never been disappointed, not even that time we wound up in a cheap little cafe in a backwater train station. But we reserve those restaurants listed below as our favorites. 

     1.  Hotel Residence, Nissan-lez-Enserune: Chef/Owner Philippe SANS is just one heckuva cook. The new dining room doesn't have the country/funky ambiance of the original but that's Bernadette for you, always looking to decorate. And yes, it's a bit more pricey than when they were building an audience. But it's about the food, isn't it. The website pictures a chef other than Philippe. We'll investigate.

     2.    Le Patio, Nissan-lez-Enserune: Also owned by the SANS', a delightful little place, less expensive than the Hotel Residence, to take lunch or dinner with friends. Fresh ingredients, well-prepared and thoughtfully presented. In good weather, dine on the patio.

     3. Le Provence , Capestang: Another of those local joints with a charming patio. The menu includes an earthy seafood soup for the brave, lots of appetizers and entrees to choose from, and personal pizzas from a wood-fired oven (try the one with foies-gras).

     4.    Le Terminus, between the towns of Cruzy and Quarante: This is a recent find, recommended to us by our Brit friend Miles. New young owners have turned this former train station out in the country into a perfect spot to enjoy a couple of hours in the sun sampling authentic country cooking. The 12 euro luncheon special of two years ago is now 16 euros. So it goes.

     5.    Le Mewen, Narbonne: A couple of blocks from Les Halles, Narbonne’s comprehensive and fascinating covered market, Le Mewen is an old-fashioned creperie without frills serving both sweet and savory concoctions. Try the apple cider instead of wine. If you'd rather eat in Les Halles, you can't beat the tapas bar.

     6.    L'Auberge de la Croisade, on the Canal du Midi, between Quarante and Ouveillan: This upscale restaurant is our special place along with the Hotel Residence. Your host Bruno is multi-lingual, full of energetic hospitality, and the food is to die for. There are those who say that the menu has grown a bit lazy, but we don’t visit often enough to notice.

     7.    Hotel Jalabert, Ouveillan: This place is definitely NOT for everyone. A funky old restaurant in a backwater hotel with exactly zero ambience, the feisty old Madame will serve what she wants, when she wants. Service is family style. Madame has a heart of gold, though, even if she’s missing most of her teeth; she’ll take the time to cut the meat into bite-sized pieces for the ancient villagers who have been her customers since the year the cow had a two-headed calf. We love it. You’re likely to think I’m crazy.


Abbaye Sylva Plana: Cute tapas place attached to a winery on the outskirts of Laurens. Modern décor. Good food. Reasonable prices for the quality except for the wine. (Restaurant wine in bottles is always too expensive when perfectly acceptable wine is sold in supermarkets for 3 Euros or so. Rant over.) Cathey had the tapas menu, choice of three – a mini Mason jar with a seafood soup that was pure New Orleans crawfishy, marinated mushrooms, and peppers stuffed with the best bacalao that Cathey has ever tasted. I had a superb duck breast and finished with a nasty chocolate lava cake with whipped cream. Worth another visit.

Auberge de St.Martin: Fine dining on a tree-shaded patio or in a formal dining room in Beaufort outside of Olonzac. We were treated for lunch by Simon and Julia along with their Australian friends from Capestang. Beautiful setting. Comprehensive menu. Most of the party chose the Menu Terroir at 23 Euros – choice of sardines or soup, trout or lamb, and a hefty variety of interesting desserts. Cathey chose the Menu du Jour, sardines to start, prepared differently than ours, followed by artichokes stuffed with foie gras. All started with a tiny sip of fish soup for an amusee. All prepared and presented impeccably. Much of the cooking done on an open fire fueled by the wood of grape vines. A destination restaurant to which we'll return.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Our little village of Quarante has a small grocery store - the kind that's called a Mom and Pop operation in the States. Mom's always there. I've never seen Pop. Whenever we drive out of Quarante to head for one of the surrounding towns with  more comprehensive shopping opportunities, an ATM (Quarante doesn't have one.) or a gas station (Quarante doesn't have one.), we pass a little park. There's a broad lawn - dogs not allowed - and just a few benches. So our curiosity was piqued when, on our way back from our walk to the cemetery recently, we came upon a sign that we hadn't seen before pointing the way to a different park on the other side of the village. We decided to explore.

The road to the park led through a lotissement, the French word for a housing development. You see, the French don't choose to bulldoze farmland in order to build houses or commercial centers. Their zoning laws (or the French equivalent thereof) essentially require that new housing be built on ground adjacent to existing villages where the necessary infrastructure can handle the growth. The result is compact growth dotted amid broad swaths of greenspace. Oh, those tricky socialist bleeding hearts.

But still with our American experiences in mind, as we walked up a hill past relatively new houses with relatively new cars parked out front, we imagined that the park to which we were headed was built for the youngsters in the neighborhood replete with playground equipment and, perhaps, a soccer field.

We were wrong.

I'd guess that the village bought or otherwise reserved the hilltop park property some time ago, perhaps decades before the lotissement was built. The pavement ends after the last house. A wide gravel path bordered by iris and other plantings winds up to the crest with two or three widely spaced streetlamps to light the way at night. At the top, a couple of benches look out over the village and adjacent vineyards, quite a view given that the park is on a level with the church and the mairie, always built on high ground in these little villages. And that's that except for what appears to be an informal fire pit for those willing to drag combustibles up the hill for a bonfire. Nothing fancy. Just a spot on high ground to catch a breeze on a hot summer night while you hug your honey.

We're SO happy that we live here.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Cathey and I had driven past the sign for the cemetery in Quarante on the back way out of town a time or two but we hadn't stopped. The other day, we decided to take a walk and see how it stacked up against the cemetery in Capestang, the first French cemetery that we explored and still a favorite. I wouldn't say that we are true cemetery aficionados. But we've enjoyed walking through several in our little corner of the world and we've never failed to be touched and amazed. We look forward to another tour of our local cemetery on All Souls Day. The plants and flowers brought by faithful family members are a riot of color among the cold granite.

The cemetery  gate is understated, set back from a quiet street.
This monument greets you on the inside. I'll let the rest speak for itself.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Our house in Quarante is on a quiet, pedestrian street. When sitting on our second floor patio (first floor for my European readers), we can hear the doors of our neighbors' houses open and close, their heated 'discussions' with their teenage children, their techno music, and the like. None of it is really offensive. For instance, the techno music that our closest neighbor enjoys only plays for 15 minutes or so in mid afternoon. We can deal with that. And the teenage boy across the alley is basically a good kid who helps his mom water the plants and oil the wooden shutters when he's not off riding motorcycles with his buddies.

So when a gaggle of elementary school children, maybe 8 or 9 years old, came babbling and laughing down our little walkway the other day at about 14:00h (2:00 PM for our American readers), we heard them quite clearly. We thought nothing of it. The school is only a few blocks away. There's a park within walking distance. Whatever the reason, happy kids in the open air is a good thing. Cathey and I smiled at each other and went back to reading our books.

An hour or so later, we decided to take a walk. We've been doing a good bit of walking, both for exercise and to learn the lay of the land in our new home. Without thinking about the kids that had passed by before, we headed in the same direction, towards the Abbaye de Quarante (also known as Eglise Sainte-Mary de Quarante) just a few steps away. As we entered the square that the Abbey dominates, faint vocal music hovered at the edge of our hearing. It seemed to come from the Abbey. We decided to investigate.

I'll probably write about the Abbey in more detail later. Suffice to say that its history dates back over 1,000 years and the name of every abbot is enshrined on a plaque on one of the columns. It's an unpretentious sacred space by European standards, but pleasant and with a certain charm. You can learn more HERE. (Sorry. Website in French.)

As we approached the entrance, our suspicions were confirmed. The school children led by a half-dozen or so teachers were involved in some sort of vocal activity, either rehearsing for a show or simply using the acoustics of the Abbey to enhance their vocal games. One group would sing a note, another would sing the note a third higher. Occasionally, on some signal that we couldn't detect, the group directly in front of the altar would move off and another would take their place. At one point, two of the groups joined in a finger-snapping, jazzy little scat number.

Cathey and I simply stood in the back by the door and smiled. If there's a show coming up, we hope to attend. If not, how neat is it to bring kids into an acoustically interesting space and just let loose? Either way, we spent an enjoyable half hour just hanging out in the church in our new little home town.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


From infancy through young adulthood, I lived just west of the center line of the Great Northeast Corridor of the United States, that stretch of a few hundred miles along the Atlantic coast that starts in Boston, cuts through New York and Philadelphia, and terminates in northern Virginia just past Washington, DC. I LIVED there. It wasn't just my home. I never strayed. I knew nothing of the rest of the civilized world except for what I heard and read, saw on the television or in the movies.

In the first place, our family never traveled much when I was a kid. Dad's lunch counter required his attention seven days a week. When we did vacation, we went down the shore, the Jersey shore if you didn't get the idiom. I don't remember a single night in a strange bed that wasn't in a relative's house or down the shore.

And the personal histories of my family discouraged any incentive to travel in order to return to the lands of my genealogical roots. My paternal grandmother Dora and her brother Sam told stories of waves of antisemitism culminating in pogroms in their native Ukraine, of risking lives to rescue the Torah from burning synagogues, of walking with all of their belongings in pillowcases to Milan in order to take steerage to the New World. We never knew any of Dora's five husbands, the last a cousin so we can assume that his story matches hers.

Mom's Russian progenitors apparently lived more comfortable lives. Bankers led the family. Still, they were Jewish bankers. Some chose to remain, the 'home' base for a family network that facilitated its members' desires to emigrate, not unlike today's new Americans. Gino, our favorite pizza guy when I was a kid, told of how his family in Italy put together the money to send him to New York. A cousin took Gino in, taught him the business, and put up the money for Gino to open a shop in Flemington, in what was then rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Gino brought over other cousins to help in the shop. Business boomed. Gino opened a second shop, staffed by the cousins he had trained, allowing for additional cousins to be brought over. That's how Grandma Rose's family operated.

Nothing in these stories created a desire in me to retrace the steps of ancestors who left their native lands so willingly.

Then one day in 1970, I climbed into my VW Beetle and embarked on a road trip sufficiently epic to merit a Ken Keyseyish novel if only I had the talent.  My intention was to travel to Atlanta to visit a friend, then on to Dallas to visit a cousin. I had no plans beyond that. But in Dallas I met Cathey, who was born in New Orleans, raised in three different Texas cities, and who attended college in Mexico and did the backpacking-in-Europe scene years before. I was to spend the next forty years (and counting) with. Cathey. . On that one trip, I left Dallas for Indianapolis, returned to Dallas with one of Cathey's sisters, drove to New York with Cathey, to Boston and back to New York with another friend, with Cathey and friends to Chicago and San Fransisco, to Los Angeles and back to Dallas. After a side trip to New Orleans, Cathey and I found our way home, to my home, then our own first home together in northern New Jersey.

I'd been bitten by the wanderlust bug and Cathey was a carrier. With such a start, how could I not consider the unthinkable, the idea that living out my life within a few miles of my birth would not satisfy my soul?

Saturday, February 4, 2012


The Wall Street Journal can't help but have a schizophrenic attitude toward France and the French.

On the one hand, France is a social democracy. Not technically socialism, but close enough that you can call it that if you're a Republican politician. The French enjoy  universal health care. (Maybe the word 'enjoy' is not one that the WSJ would use.) The French are part of that European Union thing, encouraging sloth among its populations, running up debt, threatening the markets.

On the other hand, those who read the WSJ are presumed to have disposable income. They want the best and they can afford the best. They live lives of relative leisure. If they knew how, they would be decadent.

Who knows more about decadence than the French?

So what is the editorial board of the WSJ to do? The answer comes in three parts:
1. They denigrate the French on the news and editorial pages for their corrupt politicians, their 'entitlement' economy, their lack of good old Protestant work ethic.Can you believe that the French are entitled to more vacation by law than any other country in the world and that they take just about every day of vacation time to which they are entitled? And socialized medicine? Don't even go there.
2. They worry on the financial pages that the European Union's apparent inability to solve it's economic problems will have a negative effect on the US economy. Their problems are their own fault...if you overlook that uniquely American invention, derivative trading. But if they blow their recovery, we might go down with them.
3. They lay it out plainly on the pages that deal with life-style and the arts. French wine is the best. French food can't help but tickle the palate. French museums, the Musee d'Orsay in particular, set the standard. And today, I learned that the French are exemplary parents.

Exemplary parents? How can this be? How can the same people who demand to be coddled by their government be the kind of parents who successfully teach their children patience, discipline, and self-sufficiency?

I believe that attitude stems from a mistaken premise, that the French have persuaded their government to create a society that expects more in services than they are entitled to and are willing to pay for. I believe that the French have demanded exactly what reasonable people in the modern world deserve - working conditions that allow them to have a decent family life, healthcare that is among the best in the world and available to all, and a retirement age that allows them to be fully active for many years before the ravages of time set in.

But are the French willing to pay? I think that they are. Certainly, they would prefer lower taxes to higher ones. But they have a simple income tax system and a high Value Added Tax, both of which can be easily adjusted if necessary and when politicians exhibit the will to explain the need to their constituents.

They'll get through the current financial crisis. They'll keep universal healthcare. They'll get plenty of time off from work and they'll take all of it. And they'll be healthier than we are, live longer than we do, and raise patient, disciplined, and self-sufficient children.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Under no circumstances can I be considered a connoisseur of fine wine. I won't be so simplistic as to say that I don't know much about wine, but I know what I like. My palate is a bit more sophisticated than that. But you will never hear me describe a wine as, "A saucy little vintage, spicy with hints of leather, pine cones, and pineapple at the finish."

And the reader should be aware that I am no fan of the big California boutique wines. They are overly expensive and have too high an alcohol content for proper drinking. In a culture that considers wine the beverage of choice any time that food is taken with the possible exception of breakfast, an alcohol content of 8% to 10% is fine for table wine and 10% to 12% is about right for a special bottle for a special meal.

Consider this. Cathey and I consumed the equivalent of two bottles of wine over dinner at the Hotel Residence in Nissan-lez-Enserune one night, a rose at the start and a red for the main. They were perfect for the food and within the alcohol limits described above. We heaved ourselves into our rental and were promptly stopped at a checkpoint around a corner less than two blocks away. I passed the breathalyzer test at 0.0%. Two possible explanations present themselves:
1. The gendarmes were nice guys, took pity on the goofy Americain, and used a broken tester.
2. You can consume, enjoy, and metabolize a considerable amount of wine and still solve complex mathematical equations if the wine has the appropriate alcohol content, if you linger over a multi-course, work-of-art meal for two hours or more...and assuming that you were a mathematician in the first place.

Below are links to the vineyards that we visit when we are stocking our French cellar. Some of their wines are exported to the USofA, but often those wines are designed specifically for what the French vintner considers the American taste and are quite different from the wines available at the vineyard itself for local consumption. And please note that, with a couple of exception, we pay about $5.00 a bottle for rose and never more than $10 for any bottle.

1. Chateau Caza Viel: On the D14 near Cessenon sur Orb, generational winemaker Laurent Miquel has decided to specialize in viognier, a difficult grape, and its combinations.  The results are quite pleasant without being overly complicated and heavy. There's viognier, chardonnay viognier, syrah viognier, and more. The quality is excellent across the board. Their bottles are for drinking with dinner or a fine lunch.

2. Chateau Saint Martin des Champs: Just outside of Murviel les Beziers, this is land that has been in cultivation for hundreds of years. Decent rose that sells out early, the reds need cellaring for a few years to smooth out the tannins, and a very tasty ice wine called Christine’s. We don’t go there much anymore.

3. Domaine LaCroix-Belle: The tasting room is in Puissalicon. Decent chardonnay, a red called Red No. 7 that’s ready for drinking and quite drinkable, and a sweet little dessert wine called La Soulenque. If you’re around at the right time, their New Wine is cheap and tasty.

4. Caveaux Saint Laurent: (No link) On the main drag that runs along the south edge of Capestang, this little shop is where we buy our sipping rose – cheap, pleasant to look at, and easy to drink all day long.

5. Day Trip Vineyards: Mas de Daumas Gassac They go their own way and produce wine suited to the terroir that may not meet the strict requirements of the French viniculture Gods but that goes down divinely. We bought two bottles of their best red for about $50 a bottle and will have held it for six or eight years before we drink it. Between Gignac and Aniane on the D32. Mas Amiel Their Cuvee Speciale is a wonderful after-dinner wine, almost a port, that is fermented with added alcohol, left in the open air in large demijohns for a full year, then aged in huge oak casks for an additional 9 or 14 years. Near Maury on the road to the Pyrenees and the great ruined chateaux of Queribus and Peyerperteuse.