Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Fast bike, big city

I ♥ Toulouse.  It was a brief romance, but I'm smitten.  Just 24 hours in the "pink city" (so-called because of its distinctive brick architecture) was enough to make me fall for its cute cobbled streets, blue skies, unusually beautiful graffiti and great atmosphere.  Maybe I've been in the depths of the countryside for too long, but the city pulsed with a sense of excitement and the Toulousians seemed friendly, flirty and fun - and why wouldn't they be?  They have great bars, restaurants, shops, weather and culture at their fingertips - and the Pyrenées mountains, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea aren't far away.  And if that wasn't enough, Toulouse was the home of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (OK, so that may not swing it for everyone, but he's a bit of a hero of mine: the author of one of my favourite books, "Le Petit Prince", and a French flying ace, who mysteriously disappeared in the African desert during World War II).  I don't know when or how yet, but I can really see myself living there one day...

Back to Raynaudes and straight into the  kitchen to prepare for our annual dinner for the Raynaudes villagers - all 12 of them.  They are not only incredibly welcoming and supportive of us, but they also greet our guests with big smiles, sometimes incomprehensible, patois-laden French and impeccably-maintained gardens, so we like to invite them over once a year to say thank you.  After a Vietnamese-style soup to start, then fillet of beef, we brought out the pud: hazelnut, berry, chocolate and caramel meringue cake.  If you think that's a mouthful to say, just try eating it...  Not that it fazed our neighbours - they demolished the lot, which just goes to show what an outdoor, active lifestyle does to your appetite, whether you're 9 or 99.  Impressive stuff.

Speaking of impressive, how many people would get on a motorbike and cross France (from Zurich and via a wedding in Provence) for a visit lasting less than 48 hours?  Voila Ben, fearless explorer and old Paris buddy from 10 years ago, who arrived on Saturday night on a Triumph bike and just 2½ hours' sleep, plunged straight into a 6-course dinner, followed by a nighttime swim.  Legend.  After a good night's sleep and Raynaudes breakfast, we went off exploring - the Tarn had never looked or felt better than it did from the back of the bike, as we sped from one bastide town to the next.  I think I'm now spoilt - there is no other way to travel...

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Mother Chef in the Tarn

Ladies and gentleman - may I introduce the lady who made all of this possible: my mummy.

Not only my mother and undoubtedly my biggest supporter, she's also the greatest source of cooking knowledge throughout my life and a humbling reminder that no catering challenge is too much (who else can single-handedly throw a gourmet birthday party for 110 without batting an eyelid?)

In addition to being a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen (not to mention other talents), she'd give Apollo a run for his money in the sun-worshipping department and, on her first morning here at Le Manoir de Raynaudes, she had turned towards the sun and stripped down to a bikini before I could utter "Piz Buin".  Between murmers of "Uh!  It's heavenly here" and "Ooh, my wine seems to have gone down rather quickly" (and this from a supposed lightweight), we did manage to fit in a bit of culture (Albi, Cordes, Najac - you know the drill - plus Puycelsi, St Antonin and St Martin-Laguépie) and some lovely food, including a loooooooong supper at our local, Auberge Occitane.

After six glorious days, she was gone, leaving Peter and Orlando in awe of my brilliant mother and me missing her hugely.  I climbed one of our cherry trees the morning she left and, as I remembered the kilos and kilos of cherries she'd stoned for me while she was here and I looked out across the fields towards the Pyrenees, I thought of her oft-used phrase: "It's not a bad life, really."  So true.  Come back soon, Mummy.  You fit perfectly into my idyllic little Raynaudes existence.