Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Little Train and lunch at La Mirande Restaurant in Avignon

One morning a few months ago, we headed to Avignon to ride the tourist train around the major historical sites in Avignon and eat lunch at La Mirande Restaurant. I had been to La Mirande once before at the suggestion of fellow blogger, cooking instructor and friend Barbara at Cuisine de Provence, but this would be the first time for Shirley.

We got to Avignon and parked at our favorite parking garage (Hotel Mercure) close to the Popes' Palace. When we walked out of the stairway from the garage, we see the sight below. Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral located next to the Popes' Palace in Avignon. It is the seat of the Archbishop.

The cathedral is a Romanesque building, built on Rocher des Doms primarily in the second half of the 12th century. The bell tower collapsed in 1405 and was rebuilt in 1425. In 1670, the apse was rebuilt and extended.

The building was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate during the Revolution, but it was re-consecrated in 1822 and restored by archbishop Célestin Dupont between 1835 and 1842.

Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral

Right next to the garage stairway, is the Hôtel des Monnaies (mint), the earliest private Baroque monument in Avignon. It sits opposite the main entrance to the Popes' Palace. It was built in 1619 by the Vice-Legate Jean-François de Bagni, and is dedicated to Paul V, the then reigning Pope. In 1860, it became the Conservatoire National de Musique. It was used as such up to 2007.

Hôtel des Monnaies

The Popes' Palace is a historical palace in Avignon, one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. One time fortress and palace, the papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Six papal conclaves were held in the Palace, leading to the elections of Benedict XII in 1334, Clement VI in 1342, Innocent VI in 1352, Urban V in 1362, Gregory XI in 1370 and Antipope Benedict XIII in 1394.

The Palace is actually made up of two buildings: the old Palace of Benedict XII which sits on the impregnable rock of Doms, and the new Palace of Clement VI, the most extravagant of the Avignon popes. Not only is the final combination the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages, it is also one of the best examples of the International Gothic architectural style.

Pope's Palace in Avignon

We walked around behind the Popes' Palace and found the restaurant at the 5 star hotel of the same name at the foot of the Palais des Papes (Popes' Palace).

Popes' Palace and entrance across the street to La Mirande

La Mirande is named after the room in the Palais des Papes, La Mirande, where the Pope’s representatives held receptions for the city’s notables and visiting high-ranking officials.

The walls of the hotel hold years of history. Originally a cardinal’s palace in the 14th century, the ruins of La Mirande were restored during the 17th century to create the Hôtel de Vervins with its baroque façade by architect Pierre Mignard, later becoming the Hôtel Pamard between the late 18th and 20th centuries.

The Stein family opened La Mirande as a hotel-restaurant in 1990 after restoring the property to recreate the atmosphere of an 18th century aristocratic residence, where period tapestries and chandeliers harmoniously co-exist with tufted armchairs and master paintings.

Terrace dining at La Mirande Restaurant

The Chef is Jean-Claude Aubertin, who comes from Epernay in the Champagne region in Northern France where he cooked in Champagne houses such as Moët et Chandon, Taittinger, Pol Roger, and Perrier Jouët.

Shirley relaxing on La Mirande terrace

The Restaurant has an extensive wine list but we chose a wine we were familiar with from our own Sablet.

2012 Domaine Piaugier Cote du Rhone Villages Sablet

To get our meal started the chef sent out two amuse bouche to get our appetite going. The first was a plate of Crudités with Aioli and the second was a little plate of Caviar d'Aubergines with toast.

Crudités with Aïoli

Caviar d'Aubergines

For my starter, I chose Coquilles St. Jacques, scallops with mushrooms in puff pastry.

Scallops with mushrooms in puff pastry

Shirley chose Butternut squash soup with chestnuts, hazelnuts, and pine nuts topped by softly poached egg.

Butternut squash soup with chestnuts, hazelnuts, and pine nuts topped by softly poached egg

For main course, I chose the roasted chicken breast.

Roasted chicken breast with spinach, haricots verts, garlic and roasted potatoes

Shirley chose a very tasty traditional dish of Skate with sauce Grenobloise.

Skate with sauce Grenobloise and baby vegetables

For desserts, we chose the Millefeuille, and


we chose the Sablé cookies topped by raspberries and whip cream and raspberry sorbet.

Sablé cookies topped by raspberries and whip cream and raspberry sorbet

To finish, the chef sent out a plate of mignardise, tiny pastries and sweets, usually served with coffee.


View of Popes' Palace from La Mirande terrace

La Mirande terrace

Several hours later, we pushed away from our table and headed to the tourist train. We have never ridden the train because we think it is totally touristy but we have been curious if they showed monuments or sights we had missed. The Petit Train offers a guided tour around the historical parts of Avignon. The tour takes 40 minutes and departs and returns from the Popes' Palace.

Tourist train in front of Popes' Palace

One of the things we saw from the train was the Avignon Town Hall (Hotel de Ville). It is located on the town's main square, Place de l'Horloge (Clock Square). The building ironically separates the clock tower (seen in the distance) from the square that takes its name.

Avignon Hotel de Ville

The train departs and returns to the Pope's Palace

From Avignon, we headed out across the Rhone River to Villeneuve-les-Avignons to say hello to cousins Andre and Mauricette.  On the way, we passed Philippe-le-Bel (in English, Philip the Fair) Tower in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

The Tower marks the French end of the Saint-Bénézet Bridge across the Rhone River between the Kingdom of France and Papal territory of Avignon. It is named after the French king Philippe-le-Bel who was responsible for its construction.

Philippe-le-Bel Tower

We thorough enjoyed our meal and the tranquil setting in the shadow of the Pope's Palace.

La Mirande Restaurant
4 Place de l'Amirande
84000 Avignon
Tel: 04 90 14 20 20

A bientot. Have a great week.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A trip to Carpentras for the market and lunch at Chez Serge

It is not unusual to find us headed to Carpentras on Friday morning's for the market or shopping for kid's clothes (If you are thinking about shopping for kid's or grandkid's clothes, Shirley's favorite boutiques are in Carpentras.). Carpentras is a short 25 minute ride down the D-7 from Sablet. As we get near, we see Notre-Dame de l'Observance Church towering over Carpentras.

Notre-Dame de l'Observance Church was built at the middle of the sixteenth century. It was established as a parish church in 1792. The church was restored at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Steeple of Notre Dame de l'Observance Church

This morning I dropped Shirley off near the 14th-century Porte d'Orange, a massive fortified arch, and went to find parking. After a little disagreement with an unpleasant lady about a parking place, I got myself installed and headed for the center of Carpentras which is concentrated inside a ring of boulevards that circle the old town.

Carpentras house

Market day in Carpentras is Friday, a good day to visit and see the town at its liveliest. The market is held in the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, which was the center of the old Jewish community until the 19th century, when the houses were cleared away to make way for this large open square.

Market stalls in front of the Town Hall

As I was walking to meet Shirley, I came upon this attractive fromagerie (cheese shop). I knew I shouldn't do it, but I couldn't help myself and entered the shop to see what tasty cheeses were on display.

Cheese and wine shop

Carpentras has a historic Synagogue (at the Place de la Mairie), built in 1367, it's one of the oldest synagogues in existence in France and still in use today. This building is testimony to the town's ancient Jewish community, which was protected by the Papacy during an era of persecution in France.

Carpentras Synagogue

The 28 foot Roman arch in Carpentras is the only remaining testimony of the Roman period. It was built in the 1st century AD under Emperor Augustus to commemorate the Roman victory over the Barbarians.

The Roman Arch next to the 17th century Episcopal Palace at Place d'Inguimbert

The arch sits next to the 17th century Episcopal Palace (which became the Palais de Justice after Carpentras was incorporated into France at the end of the 18th century). This structure has only one arch decorated with sculpted figures representing chained prisoners on its lateral sides.

Roman Arch

In the center of Carpentras is Saint-Siffrein Cathedral which was built on the ruins of a Roman church. The cathedral was constructed in Gothic style by order of Pope Benedict XIII. The work lasted for more then a century, from 1404 to 1519. One of the cathedral's most unusual features is the south doorway known as the Porte Juive (Jews' Gate). This ornate Gothic doorway was designed as an entrance for Jews who wished to be baptized.

Saint-Siffrein Cathedral

Faded house

In existence since 1155, the Carpentras market has two special claims to fame. Sweet, juicy local strawberries (fraises de Carpentras) begin to appear in spring. At the other end of the year, winter truffles perfume the air around the Café de l’Univers from late November to March.

Market street

As you can see below, I found Shirley sitting on a the edge of a fountain.

The memorial seen below commemorates the residents of Carpentras who were killed or went missing in the Great War (World War I).

War Memorial

Carpentras house

Founded in 1585, the Brotherhood of White Penitents installed themselves near Saint-Jean-du-Bourg Church. Their chapel seen below was consecrated in 1661. The chapel was rebuilt in 1705 and 1779.

Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs

Our go to restaurant for lunch in Carpentras is Chez Serge Restaurant which is located on the ring road near Allée des Platanes. The Restaurant has been owned by Serge Ghoukassian since 1987.

Chez Serge Restaurant

Serge is a passionate man, especially about wine and truffles, he was named the Best Sommelier of the year in 2008 and truffles are on the menu most of the time. We usually order off the 3-course l’Ardoise du Jour (daily slate special) for 17 Euros.

This day the Amuse Bouche was fall truffles in olive oil and sea salt.

Fall truffles (Italy, not Alba) in olive oil and sea salt

Domaine de Fondreche Côtes du Ventoux Rosé

For starter, I chose the softly boiled egg with chickpea puree and Shirley chose the eggplant soufflé (Papeton) with tomato sauce and greens.

Soft boiled egg with chickpea puree

Eggplant soufflé (Papeton) with tomato sauce and greens

For main course, Shirley chose the brochette of salmon with mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and finished with a beurre blanc sauce and I chose the brochette of lamb with mash potatoes, grilled eggplant and mushrooms.

Brochette of salmon with mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and a beurre blanc sauce

Brochettes of lamb with mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant, and mushrooms

To finish we chose the Faisselle with red fruit sauce. Originally the word "faisselle" referred to a container made of wicker and pierced with holes to drain the cheese. Over time, it came to mean the actual cheese. Made from cow, goat or lamb's milk, faisselle is characterized by a very high humidity ratio (up to 85%) and no rind.

Faisselle with red fruit sauce

We also ordered a lemon tart with lemon sorbet.

Lemon tart with lemon sorbet

We enjoyed our tasty lunch, the Restaurant was very busy, and service was a little slow and uneven. But it didn't bother us, the market was over and shops were closed until 2 or 3. Don't let it bother you.

Chez Serge Restaurant
90 Rue Cottier
84200 Carpentras
Tel: 04 90 63 21 24

Have a great weekend. Chat soon.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Visit to the Camargue and we see a bull fight in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

On a whim a few months back, I suggested that we drive through the Camargue and see where the sea salt we buy is produced. We could also look for the red rice which is produced in the same area. We love this rice, it was a regular feature on our Bistro Des Copains menu.

The Camargue is a triangle shaped area on the coast between Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. It's a river delta where the Rhône River meets the sea - a marshy island bordered by two branches of the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea.

With over 360 square miles, the Camargue is western Europe's largest river delta, with exceptional biological diversity, and home to unique breeds of Camargue horses and bulls, more than 400 species of birds including Pink Flamingoes, rice paddies and salt which has been harvested here since the Middle Ages.

The Camargue

The Camargue lies within the Department of Bouches du Rhône ("Mouths of the Rhône"). At Arles, the Rhône River divides into two branches, the Petit Rhône (Little Rhône) to the west and the Grand Rhône (Great Rhône) to the east seen below.

Rhône River

Much of the area is under water - inland salt water lakes, called étangs. Approximately a third of the Camargue is either lakes or marshland.

The Camargue is the only place in France (and one of the few anywhere around the Mediterranean) where pink flamingos nest. The flamingo population can reach 20,000 couples grouped into flocks. The flamingo is the emblem of Camargue.

A Camargue wetland with pink flamingos

We headed first to Salin-de-Giraud in the southeast corner of the Camargue where the nearby salt marshes are famous for their salt production, producing up to 15,000 tons a day in the summer. Salt is produced along the final stretch of the Grand Rhône, an industry that dates back to Romans times.

Salt salins

This is one of the biggest salt works anywhere in the world. Some is used as table salt. Fleur De Sel de Camargue ("flowers of salt") is hand raked and harvested. Only the premium, top layer of the salt bed is used for this. The name Fleur De Sel comes from the aroma of flowers - violets in particular - that develops as the salt dries. Each signature container is sealed with a cork top and signed by the Salt Raker who harvested it.

A salt dune

After lunch, we headed toward Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a fishing village and tourist resort on the Mediterranean Sea close to the mouth of the Petit Rhône. The town lies about 38 km to the southwest of Arles.

The Camargue in general and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in particular are associated with the Roma (Gypsies). Beginning in Medieval times, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was the destination for a Roma (gypsy) pilgrimage each year to venerate St. Sara (or Sarah).

Some very focused Pétanque players

According to Provençal legend, a boat was launched from Jerusalem around 40 AD without sail, oars or supplies, and drifted across the Mediterranean sea until it reached shore at this site. The refugees in the boat were: Mary Jacobe, the mother of James and the sister of the Virgin; Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles James Major and John; Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary Magdalene and Martha; St Maximinus; Cedonius, born blind and cured and Sarah, the servant of the two Marys.

After landing safely, the group built a small chapel to the Virgin. The disciples wandered off their separate ways, Mary Magdalene went to Sainte-Baume, and Martha went to Tarascon. Marie Salome, Marie Jacobe and Sarah remained in the Camargue, and were later buried in the oratory. The tomb of these three saints became a cult object, and has attracted pilgrims for the past nineteen centuries.

Statue of guardian and bull in a roundabout in the center of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The Baroncelli Museum seen below is the 19th-century town hall. It presents the zoology and the agro-pastoral ways of the Camargue region, and the history of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Baroncelli Museum

The Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towers over the village and is visible from as far as 10 km inland. The church was built from the 9th to the 12th century, as a fortress and a refuge. It has a fresh water well inside, for when the villagers had to take shelter from raiders.

Notre Dame de la Mer Church

We climbed the very narrow steps up to the observatory area on the roof of the fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

View from the roof of the Fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer out to Sea

View from the roof of the Fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer over the town

Statue of white Camargue horse in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

As we walked around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we heard repeated loud cheering from a crowd, and headed in the direction of the sound to see what was going on. We came upon an arena, at the edge of the beach, for bullfights, and one was taking place. We soon discovered that these bullfights vary greatly from their Spanish cousins. Most notably, the bull is never killed.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer bullfighting ring

The bull is the king of the Camargue. The Camargue breed, in Provençal: Raço di bioù, is a cattle native to the Camargue marshlands where they live semi-wild, tended by the mounted herders called gardians who ride the famous Camargue horses which live in the same area. The large herds are called “manades” (this word is also used to refer to the farms that breeds the bulls) and are bred solely for the “course camarguaise (Camargue style of bull-fighting).

Camargue bull

In the arena, the bull is confronted with a dozen raseteurs (Camargue bullfighters) who try to remove the ribbon that has been attached between its horns with strings. Ferocity, bravery, and skill during combat will make him a God of the Provencal and Languedocian arenas.

Camargue bull and 3 razeteurs

The bulls aren't killed or injured, but it's extremely dangerous for the men trying to get that ribbon. The dozen or so raseteurs, all dressed in white, crisscross the arena, calling out to the bull to attract him. They constantly have to leap up into the bleachers to escape the charging bull.

Each “fight” lasts 15 minutes, after which he returns to the herd and won't participate in another “fight” for 2 or 3 weeks. The “cocardiers” (the name for star bulls) “fight” around 6 or 7 times per year.

A bull destined for the Spanish corrida (bullfight) has one fight of his life, a good Camargue bull can fight for a decade. That's because Camargue bulls aren't killed in the rings. Camargue bulls get better and tougher as the years go on, because allegedly they're extremely smart.

It's not the bullfighters, but the bulls that are the celebrities here. The great fighting bulls are buried in the marshes, and villages erect statues to them. Every self-respecting Camargue village has its bull statue.

In the picture below, a raseteur tries to remove the ribbon that has been attached to the bull between its horns.

A rasateur tries to remove the ribbon attached to the bulls horns

Camargue cowboys are known as guardians, and like their American counterparts they herd cattle. They are the guardian angels of the bull herds. They ride all day long to catch calves for branding, take bulls from the pastures to the paddock and to the arènes or bullfighting rings.

A guardian on his white Camargue horse

The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the guardians, who herd the bulls. The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue. Its origins remain relatively unknown, although it is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world. They are small horses, but despite their small size, they have the strength to carry grown adults.

A guardian on his white Camargue horse

We waited with the crowd for the guardians to pass by as they escorted the bulls back to their paddocks. The bulls run through the street surrounded by guardians on their white horses.

The guardians escort the bulls back to the paddocks

The bulls and their guardians pass by our vantage point

From Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we headed to Aigues-Mortes, a striking, walled Medieval town sitting on the flat marshes of the Petite Camargue. At the foot of the Aigues-Mortes walls, stretch nearly 25,000 acres of salt marshes. Since it was late in the day, we didn't spend a lot of time so we will have to go again.

Have a great rest of your week. Chat soon.