Lofoten And Holmen – Frozen Paradise Part 1

Having arrived at Holmen Lofoten early evening, and after a few minutes to offload the luggage into my delightful room, I was off into the main lounge area, not sure of what to expect. Håvar and I had chatted non-stop pretty much on our journey from Leknes airport, me munching the dried smoked fish which grew on me quite quickly, salty, savoury and smokey, great with something chilled.

I recognised familiar faces as I topped the stairs, Richard Bertinet, my cookery school owner friend, Val Warner, he has a great Patreon site which i had recently subscribed too and there he was, one of my real food heroes, Rick Stein! People were saying hello and introducing each other as we settled into the evening, shortly after, following a brief introduction into the proceedings, some history and we ventured downstairs to eat.

Each of us had our own personal itinerary ready in our room for the few days we were at Holmen, which in fact means ‘an island on a lake, river or estuary’, our location was a rocky outcrop, stunning Norwegian scenery, biting cold, occasional blizzards the location was breathtaking beyond imagination. The days and evenings gave a chance for each of the guest chefs, and the Holmen team to produce some stunning food with a minimum waste ethos, using parts of animals usually discarded, or used to produce animal feed or fertiliser components! We were in for a real treat with such star quality worldly experienced masters of food producing our meals.

Hello, let’s get right into it, roast Cod’s and Pig’s heads. We had already had nibbles upstairs, the Cod’s Liver on Richard Bertinets’ amazing fresh Brioche bread were just off the planet, something that most people would turn away, until you try it, don’t knock it as it’s delicious. Sweet Buttery Bread, with a beautiful slice of slightly crispy edged Liver it was sublime.

The Raw Scallop with Bergamot and Rhubarb was another delight, giving, tender, the cut of citrus working with the succulent scallop flesh to deliver a taste unlike no other.

I was excited to see the Bitter Leaf Salad on the menu as I had seen Val describe this dish on his Patreon site, something a recently departed chef Alastair Little had taught him a long time ago whilst under his employ, truly punchy and delightful it certainly matched the description I had heard.

The menu that evening was a tribute to a combination of no-waste and hardcore cuisine, punchy flavours and something a little unusual, but at the same time worthy of any quality restaurant and certainly delivered on all levels, thanks Val!

If you have already read Part 2 of my Norwegian Adventure you will have seen my 10 hour trip to Finland to see the Northern Lights on Tuesday evening, a truly memorial experience, Lofoten was not to outdone. Around 21:30 there were signs we were in for an interesting night. The familiar greyish trails were forming as we all dashed outside to see another great show which carried on for several hours. Maybe not a colourful as those in Finland, but, due to the mountainous backdrop they provided a completely different experience like the selection above, truly unique and ever changing .

We all went back inside, out of the chill of sub-zero temperatures and continued our amazing meal, the finale being a delightful punchy Aquavit and Prune Crème Brûlée, which finished things off really nicely. We continued into the night moving around tables getting to know each other and saying hello to the amazing band of chefs that were soon to become friends and family, finally retuning to our rooms to try and sleep. I was still up at 02:00, popping outside to capture more of the Aurora Borealis and witness it’s magical prescience.

………………………..Until next time…………L8ers………….

My Norwegian Adventure Part 4 (Bodø, The Gateway)

It’s never easy for me to leave places, many memories but some stay behind in the shadows, I end up with mixed emotions both happy and sad. I will be very happy that I will have enriched my life with new amazing experiences, food, smells, views, excitement and adventure but sad that most of the fantastic people I will have met will be distance memories over time, and mostly to never meet again, but for a few unfortunate souls that will feature in future travels!

As we sat on the runway at Tromsø airport a scandinavian accent with eloquent English reminds me just how far north we are and preparing for take-off involves a trip to the ‘de-icier’, jeez, what’s that all about, a new one for me. Memories of cold UK winters with a screen scraper trying too remove ice from a frozen windscreen, using a combination of grunt, spray and warm water to expedite the process of removing ice in the cold breath of winter, this will be an interesting experience. My mind wanders briefly imaging a team of well covered individuals clambering all over the plane to make sure it’s safe to make our journey south to Bodø!

We are in a super efficient land of common sense and very soon a big elevated cab with an individual onboard, controlling a pair of high pressure sprays, dosing the plane with a pinkish fluid which has immediate effect on the frost and ice, soon we are heading for the runway, a pause for a couple of minutes as a twin prop plane lines up to land, and then we are off, heading into the sky and down towards my next stop, Bodø.

During the planning phase of my Norwegian adventure which had taken many months, I tried to find places of interest both from a culture perspective as well as cuisine as my main draw to travel is food, very closely followed by culture, and Bodø has it in lorry loads. Having got up a ‘silly o’clock’ and not wanting to consume plastic wrapped food which would probably contain more un-recognisable chemicals that ‘real’ ingredients I had planned to have breakfast when I landed. That’s actually more difficult that it seems as we glided into Bodø just before 8’o’clock and this sleepy coastal town didn’t seem to wake before 10:00! Bugger!

It took me quite some time to find a ‘cult’, ‘artisan’ eatery that was going to be open at a sensible hour, my taxi driver suggested the locals were lazy, she was up at 04:00 every day but this sleepy little town didn’t really awaken until 10:00 at the earliest. My destination was Berbusmel, a delicatessen that opened at 09:00, which seemed to offer the kind of food I was interested in.

I arrived in town at 08:15 so took a wander, rang the wife to catch up on happenings at home, luckily no dramas and before too long it was opening time, within seconds of 9 o’clock locals were clambering to purchase the wonderful delights inside. I entered, found a quiet corner to settle and enquired as to what was typical for breakfast, the suggestion was to try a ‘Svinenakke’! Oerrrr missus, sounds interesting, a Pork Ciabatta with Pesto, Cheese and Salad so definitely not your typical fry up! I did fancy something sweet as well and the ‘house special’ was ‘Skolebrød’ so one of those was ordered along with a Latte. Booooom, absolutely delicious the whole selection was perfect and I took my time to savour every bite.

I had arranged my onward transport for later that afternoon over to Lofoten, both Ferry and Plane were booked as the weather can change very quickly here, I didn’t want to risk not getting over that evening and miss the start of my time at Holmen Lofoten and the ‘Kitchen On The Edge of The Earth’ experience. I had already checked in, the flight was only 20 minutes and I could enjoy some scenery after I landed, on the drive up to Søvågen, the final destination. There were as couple of places I had planned to visit during the stopover, The Norwegian Aviation Museum, and the Jektefartsmuseet a maritime and cultural museum which also looked interesting.

The museum was really interesting, covering both civil and military aircraft and associated paraphernalia, I wandered though time, exploring the different craft and their specific role and history and before long it was close to lunch and my back was aching. I decided to miss the other museum and get back to the airport, I could return another day with the family, they would love this place. I sat down at the airport and decided to use the time to write the blog from the previous day before my creative spirit vanished. Soon, we were boarding the plane to Leknes, the airport on Lofoten.

A Dash 8 was to be our vessel of transport, no seats were allocated but I was in ‘Group A’, the 1st to board so had plenty of choice, settling down for the 20 minute flight we were soon in the air and on the way. There is something romantic about small planes with propellers, a vulnerability, they don’t fly high, seem somewhat flimsy but ‘Bernoullis Principle of Laminar Flow’ ensures that unless the wings fall off, it’s as safe as houses!

My First experience of landing at Leknes airport on Lofoten was a runway were people wandered about taking pictures and enjoying the scenario, a lovely, small and simple arrivals hall, and the gift of Dried Smoked Haddock, a local speciality that my driver and part of the Holmen Lofoten ‘family’ friend Håvar, the unknown correspondent at the other end of the numerous emails we had exchanged over the past 10 or so months kindly offered me. I munched away as we drove to Holmen, the scenery was exhilarating, stunning, rugged, unbelievable, you could see and feel Trolls watching as we navigated the windy roads. After an hour we arrived at our final destination.

………………….Until Next Time……………..L8ers…………..

My Norwegian Adventure Part 3 (Steam and Tears)

I have been up since 04:45, yesterday was busy but not so much that I didn’t have a chance to post the story on The Northern Lights Chase, which actually took over 3 hour to compose, blogging isn’t easy, believe me! I got up at a sensible hour after landing in my pit at after 02:15, the chase had been cold, exhilarating and mesmerising all at the same time, the results were worth it and I guess that’s another bucket list item done. The different colours that you saw in the pictures are based on what gases are in the high atmosphere that charges particles from the sun energy, just like how a florescent tube works, different gases create different colours.

Science lesson over, today is going to be a bit more relaxing due to last night. I had planned a couple of museums but my back starts to really create if I overwork it, so I postponed one visit to the next time I am here, hopefully with the family and we can all enjoy Tromsø together. In fact as I sit in Bodø airport waiting for my plane to Leknes (Lofoten Islands) on Thursday, exactly that happened today, my back started to moan at me so I had breakfast at a local artisan establishment, visited the aircraft museum and then back to the airport to relax and be creative, well as much as I can!

I would describe Full Steam as ‘quirky’, in that it serves as a local museum of Sami culture and history, Whaling, and various maritime subjects covering the great wars and also the development of the early fishing industry to today, it’s actually fascinating. The fun part is that I had lunch first, more of that in a minute, I mentioned the museum, the staff added the cost to the bill and almost like Mr Ben, took me behind the bar to a curtain on the right and directed me up the stairs!

I was so relieved, almost to the point of having the sweats which then dissipated in seconds! I had picked Full Steam for one reason…….Whale. It was on a previous menu that I had seen and I was mentally torn as to the morality of eating such animals, luckily it wasn’t on the menu so I opted for the Reindeer Stew instead. Hey, before you start saying that is just as bad, Reindeer in Norway (and Finland) is no different to Beef in the UK, except they are treated better, not locked away in cages for months because of the cold, and they are typically organic and not fed artificial feed to ‘beef’ them up. I have since discovered it’s an evening starter option!

Jeez it was really good, the Reindeer Stew, served with an ultra smooth pomme purée (mash), and some lingonberries it was tasty, filling and certainly hit the spot. I had a nice glass of Tomassi Ripasso to accompany and finished with a typically excellent Latte.

The restaurant is quirky, but with it comes charm and character as the building is old, and filled with all sorts of memorabilia and ‘nick naks’ to add some ancient atmosphere. I paid for the food, which is extremely reasonable and also the ticket for the museum and was shown to the door behind the bar, and up 3 flights off stairs to the starting block.

The museum/exhibition is on several levels, sort of open plan and showing Sami life as it was a long time ago through a combination of exhibits, pictures, stories and objects used in everyday life, some would say it was like an antique jumble sale but that would not be fair, a lot of trouble has gone into creating a natural time-line, taking you through the ages covering different aspects of life.

It was fascinating to wander round and soak in the daily life of Sami People, not those herding the Reindeer which is what a lot of them do. We met some in Finish Lapland many years, this covered the other aspects of Sami life, fisherman, farmers etc. it was really educational and not something I was familiar with.

The collection is huge and must have taken years to collect, order and work out how best to present to a multinational customer base, visitors from all over the world visit Tromsø. I heard accents from the UK, US, Germany and Japan and I suspect some people miss this really important record of history. It took me about 2 hours to cover the 2 or 3 floors and soak in the plethora of objects and mass of historic record.

Tonight’s ‘last night supper’, was to be at Emmas Drømmekjøkken (dream kitchen). It was one of the places I had researched and decided I wanted to experience, it looked pretty good and they did tasting menus, I pre-ordered the 7 course option which is, in fact 10 dishes, and a matching wine flight to accompany what I hoped would be a fantastic dinner, it was beyond all expectations, and some.

So, I asked not to see the menu up front (the lovely Ukrainian waitress asked me), I wanted surprise and wonderment (I think that geezer Heston Bluthmenthal uses that word). I certainly got both in buckets, what a stunning, delicious, tasty, thoughtful, inspiring menu. Its easier to show you the menu, they gave me a copy after, along with a description of the cheese course.

The little cheese course was really good, a small selection of quite young cheese, each with their own character. The marmalade was carrot and worked really well indeed.

The wine flight produced some very interesting, unusual and well matched wines for each course and then measures were generous enough to have some left over after each dish to savour before the next course.

I have to say I have eaten in a fair few restaurants in my years, up to 2 Michelin Star, boutique, a variety of cuisines and this was the best meal I have ever had, particularly mind-blowing good, was the Cod and Mussels, the cook was off the planet awesome and will stick in my mind for ever. There were 3 waitresses that took it in turns to serve both food and wine, describing each dish with clarity and passion. I love good food, this was beyond exceptional and deserves being recognised as such. If you ever visit Tromsø take some extra cash and treat yourself, you will be glad you did.

…………………..Until next time……………L8ers…………….

My Norwegian Adventure (Part 2) – Fire and Ice!

Jeez, what an adventure and its only day 2! Monday had been tiring but what a blast, and the best is yet to come. I was quite particular when choosing the hotel as there are quite a few to choose from, but I wanted a harbour and Fjellheisen view and boy, what a view it is when it stops snowing! Seriously though the hotel is perfectly located, very comfortable and clean, easy going and not fussy, the room size is great and the bed very comfortable, important as I usually have big problems with my sleep, I often can’t…..I have an overactive brain…..it doesn’t stop thinking…..

Ok, so I have a thing about Trolls, no, not the annoying dangerous internet ones, the mythical, no, they are real aren’t they? Yes, Trolls in my mind are ancient but did exist in some form, bathed in mysticism and ancient lore they first came into my imagination as a child 50 odd years ago when hearing “In The Hall of The Mountain King”, a piece of music composed by Edvard Grieg in 1875, incidental music for a play, the sixth scene of Act 2 in Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play Peer Gynt. I can still recall the sounds of the old heavy doors closing as young Peer runs out to the mountain with his tail between his legs so to speak. It was a track on a record, yes vinyl, those circular black disks that needed a needle, turntable and amplifier, those were the days!

My musical influences have changes significantly since then and as I write this I am listening to the rock group ‘Yes” in particular their song ‘Awaken’ from the Album ‘Going for the One’, which is very apt for what happened last night, but more of that later.

It’s Jules the Troll. 🙂 The Troll Museum in Tromsø is a very clever museum as it caters for all ages, even us old gits. They have managed to include enough historical content to make it really interesting for the older generation, whilst making it fun for the youngest of children, playrooms allow interaction whilst numerous tablet pc’s spread around the exhibits really bring things to life in a fun sort of way. You have to enter open minded and imagine Trolls existence in some form and if you do, go SLOWLY around each exhibit as there is a lot of information available to the inquisitive.

The clever use of VR really does make a difference with Trolls popping out all over the place, this particular one is actually helping you work out where the troll is on the map, which was both interesting and fun at the same time. If you have children they should love it, especially if you have included the subject prior to your trip and maybe done some research about the history, or watched the odd Troll film as I have done recently. Anyway, it’s great fun and a good way to spend an hour or so out of the blizzard and freezing weather outside.

After a trip to the local tourist office to get a map I was desperate for a good coffee, and with a few minutes wandering around the beautiful streets, hardly a recognisable brand in sight which for me was awesome, I discovered Tøllefsenhjørnet, a coffee and wine café so entered and got myself a most beautiful Latte. Not in a posh cup with bells and whistles, just simply presented in a glass on a paper mat, jeez it was good, really good, I went for a double and it really hit the spot nicely.

Tromsø is beautiful, almost unspoilt by western brands I have only noticed a BK (you know the burger thing) and a Hard Rock Cafe in my wandering so far. There are lots of shops with character and individuality no two looking the same, it’s not dissimilar to when I visit some regions of France, keeping local and supporting small businesses. Yes, it probably costs a bit more but you are directly supporting the local community, local people, local families which I suspect makes for a much stronger feeling of belonging and connection.

Sorry, off my soapbox and it’s time for lunch no less. I had booked Bardus last year, months ago having trawled various platforms looking for recommendations, checking menus etc. to ensure that I stood a chance of eating well, I am fussy, I like good food, I hate paying for something I can cook better myself, cooking is my serious hobby so I am sure you can understand I am not being awkward, well not much.

My waitress was a lovely Portuguese lass who obviously knew her trade, well she was a delight. I had picked Bardus for one reason only; Cod Tongues….! Yep, that little known delicacy unless you recently watched well known Swedish Chef Nikolas Ekstedt on YouTube, cooking them on………. guess where…….. my final destination………Lofoten Islands.

We discussed options at the bistro, I wanted the cod tongues but they also hands an unusual (for me) special on, Rose Fish! It’s red and ugly but beneath its lurid Outer layer is a delicate white flesh, I was convinced and so I got a starter portion of Tongue and the main of Rose Fish with a variety of additions to tempt the palate, which they did admirably!

Wine, it would be rude not too as I was on a vacation so the recommendation was a Portuguese Alvarinho, apparently my new friend/waitress got her mum really drunk in Portugal one year on this stuff, so at least I know it has some alcohol in it, it worked a treat and matched very well.

I am not normally a dessert person being diabetic but i manage to control it well so can treat myself from time to time, this was it for today as there was to be no posh meal in the evening, a Chocolate Fondant with matching dessert wine was ordered and damn good it was too. If you fancy a decent lunch, try Bardus, it has a slightly funky relaxed vibe and the food and service was excellent. The wine grapes in the dessert wine are often used to make ‘orange wine’ where the skins are left on after pressing. It was sweet, spicy and slightly apple flavoured but worked surprisingly well with the oozy Chocolate Fondant, which was cooked perfectly.

I wandered back to my hotel and started to compose, if I don’t write my blogs up I forget the nuances and character I am trying to re-create. Surprisingly it was snowing (again) heavily, the phone popped, it was Markus from Greenlander Tromsø the Northern Lights people………bugger… I had come all this way and hoped it wasn’t a cancel message! Phew, nope, he wanted us all to meet earlier at 17:30 as the weather in Finland looked good, wait, we are in Norway!

There was a small group of suspicious Northern Lights chasing types outside our rendezvous, the Scandic Ishavshotel, a stones throw, or may be that should be a medium snowball distance from my gaff the aptly named Hotel Aurora. They were sort of mingling, it was difficult to see if there were couples, groups, singletons but as promised, just before 17:30 two ‘hunting’ vehicles appeared before us and two smiley types popped out and started to behave like guides! The groups made a beeline for the guides and before we knew it, we were assigned our vehicle and fellow hunters for the evening, a brief explanation and off we went into the sunset…. Nope sorry I should have said blizzard as it was snowing extremely hard again!

Matteo was a really cool guide, had a sense of humour and was well travelled. He explained to us the number one, rule for chasing the Northern Lights, clear weather and tonight Finland is the best option. So any of you that know the area (HaHa) the roads are at best, variable. I am not saying they are not good, but when you are forced to use snow tyres and its on/off blizzard conditions, the snow ploughs are tanking the E6/E8 trying to keep things moving and many of the roads are not lit you know this journey won’t be easy or quick!

So after about 1.5 hours we stopped for a fuel and 10 minute rest break to stretch legs, pee, catch a coffee or whatever was available at a garage much more sophisticated that any uk effort as you may see in the picture above, there was a lot on offer if you fancied ‘wiener’, kebab, or burger! The journey had only just begun but we were ‘following the weather’ as Matteo had told us. I was sitting next to Michele, a 3rd year medical student who had travelled from Hong Kong for a 3 week tour of Europe, we had a good chat about medicine, what she was going to specialise in (ophthalmology) and the fact she had done this the night before and since a glimpse of something, that was actually more than a glimpse, so tonight might be ok! Don’t believe the figure of 2 hr 18min above, it took about 3.5 hours to get to our final destination.

We crossed the border into Finland……….it’s a long way in blizzards, roads with no lights, snow tyres, the weather continued to look rather unpleasant and all off a sudden we pulled over, Matteo jumped out and proclaimed it’s starting, then a coach pulled up and we moved off, to a ‘secret location’ that now isn’t if you grab the co-ord’s above, I had my GPS on, my watch and phone recording when I took pictures you can see we were on a lake pretty much. The white line is the Swedish border and yes, we crossed over a frozen river too into Sweden, how adventurous.

Who has seen the film twister, seriously now, they look for tell-tale signs something is going to happen, then race in convoys to see who can get their first and record stuff, take pictures, get that amazing bit of kit into the eye so they can capture measurements. Yep, they was us last night. The human eye cannot really see Aurora, it needs a camera, approximately 15-20 seconds exposure, the right aperture, look closely and towards the lower mid right above you can see a slight green fog, to the eye in real life its like a grey mist.

All of sudden it seemed to ‘switch-on’ a bit more, and more, and more, and more. We had decamped onto the lake, donned our arctic suits and started to look skyward and see dancing patterns slowly emerging. Our guide set his Canon EoS 5D camera up, a quality piece of kit, tripod stuck in the snow and started to take some shots of us all, and helped us set our own cameras, those that had bought them along on the extra tripods we had elected Greenlander to provide, it helped a lot. It was -11 on the lake, very cold and the car had its heater running so we had the chance to warm up occasionally, if it got too much!

After about 30 minutes time melted into nothing, we were all looking skyward in awe, moving around to try and get different angles, views, colour bursts which the naked eye couldn’t see, but cameras could. I used my Leica D-Lux 7 to good effect early on and later moved to my iPhone Pro Max, which was surprisingly excellent being easier to manage in the freezing cold, despite having arctic gloves on!

Matteo lit up a fire in a metal open framed pit at some point and small seats were arranged in a circle so we could enjoy the warmth of the embers. Hot delicious carrot soup was passed around in individual thermos flasks along with some seed crackers, a bottle of Tabasco doing the rounds was soon empty. One of the group had acclimatised earlier by eating 2 ice-creams on the way up which didn’t work at all but was a cause of laughter and amusement. It was someone’s birthday and a small marble cake appeared with a candle on it, we all sang happy birthday, the cake passed around and we all were part of a nice touch, for a very special moment.

By the time we got back to Tromsø it was 02:15, we had set out at 17:30, these guys are more than dedicated, they do this every night in season and based on last night, they are the best, committed, we WILL find the Aurora, over 6 hours driving in the worst of conditions, like Ice Road Truckers with an added blizzard for good measure. I woke up at 08:00 and shortly after a message from Matteo with a link to the pictures he took for us, awesome.

……………………..Until next time……………L8ers………………

My Norwegian Adventure (Part 1)

This trip has been about a year in the planning, thanks to a brief glance at a post on Instagram, I suspect without social media it would have never happened at all, and all thanks to my Chef/Baker friend Richard Bertinet.

As my followers know, I have been to Richard’s cookery school many times, and had the pleasure to learn from some of the best UK chefs, and Richard had posted something about ‘Kitchen On The Edge of The World’ and Rick Stein, I was immediately distracted, what was Kitchen On the Edge Of the World?

I fired up the browser and started to search:

WHAAAAAT…….I searched some more and found my next bucket list item, but suspected this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, how would I find the money, it was a worthy investment. My sales had been good, I was over target, maybe I could make it happen.

So next was the challenging bit, explaining to your wife of 35 years:

A. You wanted to go to Norway

B. It’s going to be an ‘investment’

C. It will never happen, how can I justify etc………

So I showed her the internet advert, she knew how much I liked Rick, having spent a week in Padstow the previous year, two days at his Cookery School and trying the many restaurants which you can read about on a previous blog. The conversation went something like…. How much! You’re Kidding!, well I suppose it’s Rick Stein, and that bloke Valentine Warner who I have heard you talk about occasionally, the one that eats pretty much anything (yep, another food hero)! And Richard Bertinet is going, you know him don’t you, well sort of yes, he is a very good baker and runs that cookery school in Bath I keep going to, for the odd days cookery class.

I let the conversation at that, not saying anymore, it wasn’t going to happen so I would find something closer, and bit more cost effective and tried to put it out of my mind, which was somewhat challenging to say the least.

A week later and ‘The Boss’ suddenly said, hun, that food trip, if you do your target you can go, BOOOOOOOM, it was starting to come together but several months to go before I was in a position to actually book anything and feel confident that it was going to happen.

Over the next few weeks I began to think, The Kitchen on the Edge was Thursday to Monday, it made sense to try an add somewhere to make it a bit more of an experience, I am not saying its not in the slightest, it definitely is but If I was going to travel all that way it would be nice to see somewhere else and maybe eat some local delicacies, ah Tromsø, the most northerly city in the world, where people travel to ‘hunt’ Aurora Borealis, The Northern or Polar Lights (there is a southern version too), that’s the place.

I started to look at options, flights, modes of transport, things to see, do and eat and slowly an itinerary was starting to form. Fly to Tromsø first thing Monday, fly to Bodø first thing Thursday, depending on weather, either a Ferry to Lofoten or a flight, both were options and the timings allowed me to visit The Norweigan Aviation Museum and the Trade Museum before going to Lofoten, perfect.

Time seemed to stand still for months, still no view of target being met and the necessary funds to start my planning in earnest, it was all still a dream until one day the figures came in and I hade done it, over target and enough money to cover the trip and any extras I would need to make it all happen. I appreciate I am in an industry that does mean I can enjoy the odd luxury but my wife cannot work for medical reasons and our son has ADHD so money is not as easy to come by as you might think, but extremely hard work had paid off and I wear able to pay the deposit, if my band would actually let me!!

I went online and within minutes my account was FROZEN! What’s happening, I just want to transfer some money. I had to ring the fraud team and explain for half an hour, that it was a reputable company, I knew what I was doing, it’s wasn’t a fraud, i knew the people involved (Rick bloody Stein, isn’t he a little well known), eventually they cleared the transfer and confirmed future transfers would not be blocked.

For the next few months, apart from Christmas I had one thing on my mind, a place called The Lofoten Islands, a boutique family hotel called Holmen and Tromsø, a city I was going to visit. I remember the city (Paris of the North) from an episode of Michael Palins Pole to Pole, day 14 where he visited the city of then 50,000 people, MUCK actually Mack, a local pure beer which is brewed not far from where I am staying in the city centre and the Ice Cathedral, a modern shaped building close to the the Fjellheisen cable car, the first trip planned on my arrival.

I was determined to pack in a much as possible whilst in Tromsø so looked at Museums, Restaurants, Sight Seeing Trips in fact everything about the city that was for me, interesting and over the next few months I booked, flights, ferries, a hotel, restaurants so that when I arrived everything should fall in to place, and so far it has.

It’s currently Tuesday afternoon and as you can see from my Balcony (not many of those in Tromsø hotels overlooking the harbour, only 3 in the Hotel Clarion Collection Aurora) it’s snowing heavily. Markus Varik from Greenlander contacted me a couple of hours back, I am chasing the Northern Lights tonight and he wants us to leave at 17:30 instead of 19:00 as the weather is good in Finland!! More of that on the next blog.

I created a list of things I wanted to see and do, you have already had the chance to view Tromsø from the mountain overlooking the city (tick), prior to that ‘Rakketen’, smallest bar in the world and famous Hot Dogs (tick). It was very good by the way, and the evenings entertainment was my first restaurant Mathallen which I booked months ago.

The food was exceptional and ‘different’, a definite preference for a sweeter flavour was apparent but nonetheless the chefs excelled, producing plate after plate of delicious delicacies over a period of about two and a half hours. There was Salmon, Herring, Skrei (Cod), Beef Cheek, Duck and Pear with a wine flight perfectly matched to accompany definitely a memorable evening

It was snowing as I walked back to the hotel, and passed the Lutheran Church which looked completely different than I had seen it before, actually quite stunning, eery, almost spiritual I guess. Back in the hotel a quick brandy, I started to write my first blog of the trip and now I have to get my arctic gear on for our trip to Finland, more of that soon.

……………………….Until Next Time……………………L8ers………………….

Scrambled Egg & Tarts – The Final Days Cooking At The Gascony Cookery School

I mentioned breakfast on a earlier post so thought I would say that at this place, you get proper Scrambled Eggs if you want them, on top of the Croissants, home made Jams, home made Yoghurt, home made Bread each mornings spread certainly set you up for the day, with the usual chatter, comments on previous days, the view, the weather, the mosquito bites it was like a long lost family had just got back together.

This was the last day in the kitchen, and it was a FULL DAY, preparing and cooking a variety of different dishes including completing the stone fruit tarts we had started a few days before. It was already warm in the kitchen so we had to work quickly, making an almond paste to put into the previously lined case, and then de-stoning the different fruits we had all purchased from the market. Rad and I had chosen White Peach and Nectarines (from memory), they all came out really well. Once out of the oven we brushed them with Apricot Jam to give them the traditional glossy finish.

Another dish on the menu was Tunnel Boned Duck Leg, stuffed with Lemon Grass and Ginger, then rolled and wrapped in a butter soaked Muslin, there are several tricks to this dish, go on the course to find out more. David showed us how to remove the bone from the leg, we then set about trying ourselves carefully using our paring knives to keep as much of the flesh that we could, and importantly keeping the skin intact.

Lets make a French Raised Game Pie, hmmm, ok then!

Unlike UK raised pies this one did not use a Hot Water Crust Pastry, but a different recipe that produced a very delicious result. There were quite a few stages to go though as the above pictures demonstrate, making the Pastry, lining the traditional baking tin was tricky (very expensive to buy), stretching the bacon (makes it thinner), lining and filling the pastry correctly, adding the layers it took us a while to create the masterpiece that ended up on our plates later that day, it was intensive, everyone was concentrating but having great fun at the same time.

During the cooking process the contents expanded so if you had overfilled your pie, it pushed the lid off. Luckily, the pie Rad and I had produced was ‘on the cusp’, very proud we all were of our creations, very impressive work indeed. I mentioned the Tins, only + £100 each! I just checked one of my quality cookery suppliers and a decent non-stick retails at £129, maybe one for the Christmas list 😀

Time was rushing by, and soon we were to be sitting down for our final evening meal. The days had flown by and I was chilled, relaxed, calm and despite the busy and frantic nature of the 6 day course rested and ready to fly back home. The first few days in Toulouse had been an absolute culinary blast, only to be topped up with the cookery school trip and meeting friends old and new.

The Game Pie tasted beautiful, the Duck (scrumptious) was served with some Orzo Pasta and the vegetables we had purchased, produced to our own specification. Rad and I hollowed out the Courgettes we had picked, and stuffed them with lots of yummy flavours. On the road back to the airport the following morning, we drove past fields and fields of Sunflowers, all bowing away from the sun, very beautiful indeed, and quite strange.

During the time at the cookery school we had tried a number of local Aperitifs, Floc De Gascogne being one I had tried before (and have a bottle in the drinks cabinet), and a new one we tried was Pousse Rapière a local speciality to the region, and served in a ratio of 1 part Rousse and 6 Parts Vin Sauvage (Methode Traditionale) sparkling wine.

The name is derived from the rapier sword, it was yummy and another treat now sitting at home to remind me of fond trips to The Gascony Cookery School and in this particular case, some awesome restaurants in Toulouse and meeting up with my lovely friend Jules, From Tasmania.

That’s the end of this adventure, I have been back home a couple of weeks and looking forward to my next one, next year in March, to TROMSØ for three days and then Lofoten Islands to ‘The Kitchen On the Edge Of The World’ with a VERY special guest chef.

Like all my trips, I paid the full price, no incentives to promote anything, just my honest views of food and travel.

………………………………..Until Next Time…………..L8ers……………..

Gâteau Basque, Pièce Montée and Cat Woman in Gascony!

Rad and I had been enjoying the Gascony Cookery School hospitality, and ended up chatting and supping the odd glass of Rosé until (very) late again, most of the new brigade had gone to bed, I recall Emma was also an occasional ‘night owl’, we were all relaxed in lively conversation, getting bitten to bits by rampant Mosquitoes and putting the world to rights, just what we needed.

We were back at Bernards kitchen the following morning after the regular substantial breakfast, and were going to make some sweet things. There are many amusing moments when what you expect to happen does not! The traditional method of adding Butter to Sugar and creaming, slowly adding Eggs and beating in, nah, Bernards method for making a Gâteau Basque is whack all the ingredients in a bowl and get stuck in with your hands, Rad was up for it, don’t tell David, he is a purist!

Gâteau Basque Is essentially a layered cake, piped into a dish, leaving a gap around the edge as a decent amount of raising agent is used to make the batter rise, it’s light and airy. The top and bottom layers are cake mixture, the middle layer being Jam or almond Cream. It’s utterly delicious and makes a great dessert, or cake to accompany a cup of tea, or coffee and its quite easy to make as you have seen. We all got the chance to practise our piping skills, apparently, I forget to breathe whilst performing this particular activity!

Next was Pièce Montée, in our case a Croquembouche a centre piece used at special occasions, a celebration, I have made one of these before, mind your fingers on the scorching Caramel. It’s a simple, but again extremely tasty affair, small Choux buns, filled with Pastry Cream and attached with Caramel, using a lined cone as a mould.

We could have spent hours making the Choux Buns, making sure they were all the same size and weight, but to save time we had a box of the Buns, pre-made, all the same size, so just had to make the Pastry Cream, make a hole in the base of each bun, pipe in the cream and weigh them again. Dipping the filled buns carefully and placing them in the mould and soon we had our structure, Bernard gently poured the remaining caramel to help fix the interior of the Croquembouche to make sure it was stable.

After a quick break we moved onto savoury, Prune Stuffed Pork, the Prunes were from Agen renowned for the sweet dried Plum that originates from China. We were shown the technique, the Pork was to be cooked very slowly to keep it moist, it was very delicious with the spicy Tomato and Umami Spinach, Cauliflower and Cheese accompaniments.

After lunch we were off touring, a short break from cooking to visit some of the local sites of interest. Condom is lovely, steeped in history and a great place to wander. The town name ´Condom´ is derived from ‘Condatomagus’, meaning ‘old gallic market’. Condom lies on the river Baïse along one of the main pelgrimage routes of Saint Jacques de Compostelle. Because of its location on the riverbanks of the Baise, in the 19th century Condom became the capitol of the Ténarèze region and the access gate to the Armagnac.

There is buckets of info about the area on the internet, and its historic ties with the infamous Musketeers just google to find more or click the Musketeer link on the previous line for some more background.

Larressingle, classified as the most beautiful village in France is like walking back a few hundred years into times long past. It’s peaceful, has lovely old buildings, a simple chapel and the usual tourist shops, although not garish and standout, more subtle and blend in. We had a quick 15 mins to look around, it was quite hot and that was just right before our next planned visit, the one I was looking forward to the most!

Next stop was Château de Cassaigne, where we were going to taste some local, and very special Armagnac. Armagnac is the oldest brandy recorded to be ‘still’ distilled in the world, as far back as 1310. I first visited this Château in 2014, it bought back fond memories of previous weeks at the Gascony Cookery School with fellow foodies.

We had a guided tour of the old Kitchen which was fascinating and the cellars, where maturing takes place and where some VERY old and special (expensive) bottles are locked away, you can see some of them in the middle picture above, we then got to taste the difference between 3 Armagnacs, 10, 20 & 40 years old.

It would have been rude not too, I decided to invest in a 40 year old, it was delicious. Checking up on ’the big brands’ at the airport duty free, the XO (Xtra old, typically between 10 and 35 years) was between £70 – £100 more expensive, the cost of brand and marketing, I was well chuffed with my purchase.

Next stop Romieu a fascinating and very old little town dating back to circa 1082, spot all the cats in the pictures above. We all went for a wander, Rad and I decided to see how many cats we could find, and then got distracted by a coffee vendor, next minute we both had a shot of Expresso in our hands which certainly hit the spot, it was a lovely afternoon.

Romieu has a famous legend related to the cats, they saved many lives, you will find more details in the earlier link below the above picture. We had completed our whistle-stop tour.

So now we took the road back to Bernards for an Aperitif and more food, we had done the cooking so relaxed on the veranda and discussed the days trips and the weeks food, a constant ’what was your favourite’, and ’would you do differently’, like seasoned (excuse the pun) Chefs!

Dinner was the usual delicious, rich, tasty, healthy fare, tonight was Boar pâté, Pâté de tête persillé pur porc, and Foie Gras with Pain d’Epices as a starter, followed by Duck a L’orange. I have always wanted to try Pâté de tête, a rough cut Pâté made with all the edible bits of a pigs head, its extremely tasty indeed, don’t be put of by the cut of meat that is used. Yummo. Dessert was the croquembouche, it went down very well indeed.

……………………..Until next Time………………L8ers……………..

The Best Expresso Coffee, EVER, In Fleurance!

There is something about French markets and the one at Fleurance is very typical, lots of fresh produce on display, quite a lot either organic or biodynamic for those customers that want ethical and chemical free goods, cheese galore, duck and duck related deliciousness I love them.

We had been given a task and a few Euros, to get some fruit for tarts and vegetables for dinner for later in the week, so off we went in pairs to explore the sights and smells. I was teamed up with Rad, my new foodie buddy and we looked and chatted as we wondered around the market trying to find the best we could for our time in the kitchen later.

David, our chef/host had mentioned a decent coffee stall around the corner from the main square and as we both like a brew, off we went for some quick refreshment and lured by the aroma, and the churros stall opposite we soon had a cup each in our hands.

WOW. Firstly it was only 1 Euro for a shot of Expresso! I have just checked the price of a well know chain and the price is £1.95. Yes, I know they have overheads and all that but the coffee from the stall in Fleurance was probably the best we both had ever had and to be honest, the chain stores coffee is mediocre at best, and their focus IS coffee. We continued wandering around the market square and ended back at the coffee stall. ’Fancy another Rad?’, Hell yes so another couple of Euros and we were off again, but not before I purchased a 250Grm packet to take home.

Shopping done we had arranged to meet at midday at the Café Du Centre, a large indoor/outdoor establishment which amongst other things specialised in Salads, jeez where they good. A selection of at least 7 different types there was something for everyone, I went for the ‘Duck Gizzard’ variety with a slab of Foie Gras as well, it was truly delicious, very generous with the Duck, and nicely dressed with a piquant vinaigrette.

It was interesting to note that France is suffering as much as anywhere else when it comes to inflation, the menu had previous prices blacked out, most dishes had increased by a Euro or so, but hey, the food was delicious and well worth the cost.

Back at Bernards we settled down to an afternoons ’mise en place’ prepping various dishes. I was given the task of dealing with the duck we sectioned the previous day. The legs had been sprinkled with large salt grains in preparation for confit and needed washing and drying before placing in Duck Fat on a low temperature, to bubble away gently for a few hours. There was one other task to do but to find out what it is you will have to book the course, sorry. 🙂

There is no shortage of things to do at The Gascony Cookery School, it’s one of the reasons I like it. It’s definitely not one of those ’watch the chef’ events, this is get stuck in and learn, which when you have a high pressure tech job enables you to forget work, you don’t have time to think, the perfect stress buster and escape. Bliss..

Please excuse the legs as it was hot. Here we are tackling a saddle of lamb, opening it up, carefully removing the central bone and ’tenders’ ready for adding herbs and spices and rolling and tying, before cutting into noisettes ready for cooking, they were very tasty.

I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of french cuisine in this part of France. Whilst we were having 3 course meals, twice a day most days they were not massive portions and this main dish was all served on one platter, the lamb, a mushroom egg ’flan’ and stuffed tomatoes, no heavy starchy potato stuff but all delicious.

A really simple starter which was extremely tasty consisted of a thin pastry (the one used to make Brik à l’Oeuf, the famous Tunisian snack) wrapped around a slice of ’ginger cake’ atop a small block of goats cheese and then baked or fried, served, with a salad. You could use Filo Pastry instead. The palate cleanser was brilliant, a shot glass of ‘eau de vie’ with a sorbet, it really did the job and also had a nice kick to it.

You will probably recognise the cupboard which sits in the kitchen, the next picture above which is connected to the dinning room by a very tall door, all the doors are tall, the rooms are so big and airy, its an 18th century property and very grand indeed.

Surprisingly, we had some time to spare and so ’knocked up’ a quick dessert to finish that evenings meal off. Almonds, Egg Whites, A little Flour and Sugar (from memory) and whole Almonds. After mixing and lightly crushing they were baked and served with some Ice-Cream, Crumb and Raspberry Sauce, another winner.

There was a handy veranda for quick breaks, the odd coffee or apéritif depending on the time of day. Our location at Bernards was about 147Km from Bordeaux and on one occasion the wind had changed direction and within minutes, the smoke from the tragic wild fires had covered the landscape, the stench of burning wood filled the air, it reminded us all of the effect that extremely high temperatures where having on the planet, and this part of France.

So, another adventurous day out and about and in the kitchen we headed back to Davids to relax for a couple of hours, talk about the day and think about what the next would bring.

………………….Until Next Time……………L8ers………………

The End, And The Beginning – Adventures in Food

I woke up early on Sunday morning. The ’brunch’ reservation I had made I cancelled, after the significant meal I had the previous evening there was enough ’goodness’ in me to keep the engine going for at least a couple of days and I was off to The Gascony Cookery School, a COVID delayed appointment for well over 2 years to see my dear friends David and Bernard, and spend 6 days learning more cooking techniques and spending time with some fellow foodies, that was the plan.

The pickup was back at Toulouse Blagnac Airport at 14:20, other guests were flying in from somewhere so after breakfast I packed my things and got a Taxi which only took 10 minutes to reach the airport. With a few hours to spare I camped down in a coffee shop, plugged in my mobile blogging kit and starting to write up day 1, trying to remember context, create a narrative, thinking of how I could teleport a reader into the experience I had felt, seen smelt and tasted since arriving in Gascony, Southern France.

Winnie and Shirley had flown in from Canada, friends with a common love of cooking. Jenson Button was on time to collect us, that’s obviously not his real name but his driving style was mostly with one hand, the other pointing out places of outstanding natural beauty or the aeronautical museum by the airport, he does not speak english but he is a lovely man, very kind and extremely funny.

We arrived at the small village of Gramont after approximately 1 hour 20 minutes, a beautiful drive across countryside not unlike where I live but with the exception of massive fields of sunflowers, they are everywhere.

Gramont is a commune in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in the Occitanie region in southern France, it’s massive with 147 residents, I love the place. We decamped and went inside to meet David and the other guests, Rad from Manchester, a 30 year old tech engineer with a love of food and fellow blog writer, we got on very well. Also attending were Jo and Emma, I knew Jo, we had been on a previous course together in 2014 and shared the same birth year, her daughter had joined her, it was like an old school reunion!

The Cookery School is based at a Bed & Breakfast but with a professional kitchen and enough space to teach at least 8 students. There are numerous rooms at Le Petit Feuillant and this time I had the ’Gite’ a self contained apartment at the front of the building with kitchenette/lounge/bathroom downstairs, and bedroom upstairs which were all fully air conditioned, something quite unique in this part of France.

David was preparing our evening meal as we chatted, Foie Gras with Caramelised Apple, Duck for mains and Walnut Tart (which was bl@@dy delicious) for dessert. We all convened for dinner inside as it was still hot outside with the forecast heatwave, and David explained the itinerary which had changed since my last trip. Everyone then settled for the night, Rad and I sat out on the veranda chatting and drinking Rosé till silly o’clock!

Bernards, the ‘other half’ of the Gascony Cookery School had moved since I was last here, his new ’school kitchen’ was in his massive “chambres d’hôtes, Le Bonheur” in the village of Miradoux, some 11 ish minutes dash across the sunflower ridden countryside from Gramont.

We had a great breakfast to start the day, the expected Croissant, home made Jams, Awesome Scrambled Egg, home made Bread, Tea, Coffee, Fruit Juice you get the picture and soon, after the short drive we were entering Bernards ’manor’ to start the weeks cookery.

This course is ’intense’, the itinerary is provided on the website to indicate what is going to happen, if you want to laze around this is not really for you, if you want to stretch yourself, learn loads with fellow foodies then book it now.

The mornings lesson was dealing with sectioning duck, to Confit some and get the remainder prepped to cook Duck a l’Orange for later in the week. The kitchen is massive and airy, Bernards’ previous kitchen was a lot smaller and didn’t have the magnificent views of the countryside to enjoy.

After a mornings watching, cutting and sectioning we settled down for a delicious lunch as is normal at The Gascony Cookery School this time including delicious Chicken, a Mushroom Egg ’mini-flan’ and Creme Brûlée served with lovely wine, we all chatted and discussed what we had learnt so far.

David came to pick us up, and in a flash, we were in the other kitchen, getting ready to tackle a favourite of mine, Quail. To be honest nearly all food is a favourite of mine, except sprouts, I detest sprouts, a childhood ‘do not leave the table until you have eaten all up’ type detest, its definitely scarred me and I am sure it’s not a loss with all the other food I adore, like sweetbreads etc.

Dealing with the quail was great fun, David (and Bernard) are excellent, patient tutors and watch as you progress with a knife, guiding your cuts to ensure you don’t break the skin, very critical, so when the stuffing (Farce) is added you can re-create the shape of the bird without the central ribs and bones, as you can see above.

There was a great sense of accomplishment after we had all completed the task in hand, and as we were to find out later, the end result was delicious, especially with the rich accompanying Calvados Sauce that was made with the bones of the birds we had dealt with so delicately, and the rich buttery Pomme Purée that acted as a pillowy bed for the bird to rest on.

We still had dessert to deal with, Poached Pears in a Lattice Pastry case, yumm. The Pears were peeled and the core removed them poached until just cooked, left to cool and finally stuffed with a frangipane mix and put to one side. The lattice work had to be done very quickly as the kitchen was very hot with ovens on and the temperature outside, not ideal for working with buttery pastry.

We completed the task successfully finishing with a dusting of sugar and a blast with the blow-lamp!

Everyone drifted outside onto the veranda, the weather was beautiful and the sun still doing its stuff and the chilled Rosé flowing nicely, cooling us all down. Discussions continued, what we had achieved, a collective of amateur chefs we all felt that we had accomplished something great and added skills and new techniques to our repertoire

As I finish this blog post back at home, the championship winning sausages are on low and slow and there is a Potato Rosti doing its stuff with Garlic, Thyme, Salt and Pepper gently cooking in Ghee, something I saw Anton Mosimann cook many years ago. In the next blog post (the following day) we are off to the market at Fleurance, so pop back and see what happened.

………………………..Until Next Time………………………L8ers……………….

Japan, Switzerland and Stéphane Tournié – All In Toulouse!

It was the day after the night before, I have always wondered about that particular use of english but I am sure you know what I mean. Jules (2) had a midday train to catch to Marseilles, to meet Chef Paul for some more foodie adventures before departing for the UK to meet family and friends.

As we sat down for breakfast at The De Brienne Hotel, before us an excellent selection of Pastries, Fruit, Bread, Meat and Cheese, you know, the usual continental affair backed up with Sausages, Beans and Scrambled Egg for the ‘Brits’ stuck in their ways and determined to keep up tradition, we carried on discussing the meal we had experienced the previous evening, and its location, a memorial night indeed.

As time was limited, I suggested we wonder over the road to the ’Japanese Garden’, a gentle stroll, there was a cafe too so we could have some refreshments as it was going to be a very hot day.

The garden was very quiet, peaceful and serene, nestled in a quiet suburb of Toulouse it definitely could provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We heard a couple of loud ’splashes’, there were the traditional Koi Carp in the expansive lake that was central in the beautiful landscape, it was a lovely place to chill, even for a few minutes and contemplate life, the stars, the moon, whatever your soul felt needing some contemplation time. After getting attacked by Mosquitoes umpteen times we headed for the cafe and had some light refreshments, then back to the Hotel, sorted a Taxi and said our farewells.

I felt a wall picture was apt at this point, on my own until the following day, what to do, I was slightly tired, it was getting hot, I definitely didn’t want to sit in my hotel room and waste time, ah, I needed a hat as I could not find mine before I left so donned some footwear, and set out again to explore ’The Rose City’.

After the experience so far, at the market the previous day, some amazing food with more to come, the fantastic architecture Toulouse was a city I wanted to return to as it had a certain magic that was almost drug like, hypnotic, it was a great place to get away for a short break, less than 2 hrs by plane and it wasn’t expensive. I wondered around taking in the sights and stumbled across Primark! Ah, hat, and 10 minutes and 4 euros later, had myself a rather cute ‘Peanuts’ cap, nice.

In my previous post I mentioned ’TheCoffeePot’ situated near the Basilica Saint-Sernin pictured above in resplendent glory, it was just around the corner and I didn’t need an excuse to stop for a ’cold brew’ as it was getting really hot.

I sat down for a while, ordered the refreshment of choice and watched the day go by for a while, soaking in the calm atmosphere, watching Toulosains going about their business in the afternoon heat it was thinking time, what was tonights restaurant going to deliver, there was no menu describing dishes, no clues, fingers crossed it was going to deliver… I popped in to pay and started chatting about the amazing coffee to the person that served me. The coffee was Carmelites, from Copan in Honduras and he kindly wrote the details down on the receipt, a nice touch for a foodie freak like me!

It was getting close to main event time again, I decided to walk through the now familiar streets, the ones we had ’flowed’ through on Bastille Day with two zillion other people, like rapids heading towards a water fall not knowing the final destination. Luckily, this time I did, Le Jardin De L’Opera, a 1 Michelin Star restaurant on the corner of ‘Le Place du Capitole’ which is the historical heart of the city of Toulouse. I was a bit early, the restaurant had not opened yet, so I took a wonder around the massive square and boy was I pleased I did.

Years go, it would have been in the early 80’s I started to get seriously interested in food and one of my food heroes at that time (and still is) was Anton Mosimann, a Swiss genius who ran the kitchen at The Dorchester Hotel and achieved 2 Michelin stars. He had numerous TV programmes and on one, showed how to make by hand, Kirsch Stengeli, ’sticks’ of hollow chocolate, internally lined with a thin coating of sugar and filled with Kirsch. I used to get them at Frankfurt airport when I was travelling for work a few years later, and then they seemed to vanish.

OMG, I almost bumped into the Lindt shop, famous for chocolate so I popped in, ’Bonseur, ave you Baton Kirch Sil vous Plait’…. Oui, yes we have the lovely man returned in english, automatically realising the limit of my french….BOOOOOOOOOM, Yeassssss, 5 minutes later 2 boxes of my favourite EVER chocolate were in my hands, well a bag….. I started to think, bu@@er, its 40 degrees outside, they will melt, I started to panic, then think……

There was a McDonalds a few shops up, surely it would be air conditioned, I could hang in there for a bit, pretending to buy a hideous ‘Big Mac’. I hung around in there for a while but it felt hot, next door was a mini CarreFour, I dived in there, bliss, air conditioning on full, it was COOOOOL. Whilst I wandered around the chilled area I looked at the various fresh produce, ’ugly’ tomatoes that would never grace a British supermarket shelf, they looked enticing to me. It was nearly opening time at the restaurant so I took a dash and a few minutes later I was in Le Jardin de L’Opera…. Phew.

Apéritif sir, yes please, why not. After the ’Lindt Dash’ my was heart was pumping a bit, the combination of heat (40 ish degrees), and the excitement/panic of finding a lost friend and wondering if it would survive the evening or end up a melted sludge. After some chill time I caught the waiters attention and said I was ready to start, and within minutes the wonderment started, a 7 course degustation menu with matching wine flight.

Black Olive Crispy Tomato with Bean Hummus, Crispy Rice & Pollock Gravlax, Scrambled Egg

Hmmmm, this looks interesting as three differing receptacles of food were laid before me. I asked the waiter If they could write down what the menu was, for my blog and memory, they actually went further and emailed me Menu and Wine details a couple of days later, excellent. BOOOOOOM, here we go, this was just the amuse bouche, and my bouche was extremely amused, I cannot easily describe what I ate, suffice to say it was outstanding, fresh, light, tongue tinglingly scrumptious.

Smoked Eggplant with Garrigues Herbs, Eggplant Crisp, Sesame Cream

Garrigues Herbs are similar to a famous herb blend from Provence but with the hearty addition of rosemary, fennel, mint and bay leaf. The starter had texture in bounds, the smoked eggplant came in a pyrex dish with a lid and was served onto the plate at the table so you got a decent ’waft’ of the smokey herb/spice aroma, the sesame cream adding a delicate but tasty finish. the crispy slice of eggplant I suspect may have been in a hydration, it WAS like a crisp. Here we go again, BOOOOOOOOOM no.2.

Poached Oyster With Soy Sauce, Pork Croquette with Green Vinegar

BOOOOOOOOOM, no.3. At the beginning of the evening I had been asked the usual dislikes and allergies question and I had said none. I think if you are going to try a degustation menu, unless you do have a dangerous reaction to a particular food that could cause serious damage, proclaim it loudly, if not, go with the flow. I absolutely hate watching those cooking competitions on TV where someone, or a couple complain they don’t like this, or that, or whatever they shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the first place. Rant over, I am not a keen Oyster person, I am now a convert, the light delicate poaching, probably only seconds had firmed up the plump beauty and it was soooooo good, with the Soy adding seasoning and the green vinegar a punch of umami, jeez this chef and his brigade really know their stuff. The croquette was equally delish, dipped into the ’green’ vinegar that had the addition of sea weed too add colour and flavour.

Sorry……BOOOOOOOOOOM no.4. This dish was genius, I didn’t think it would work but it did, the quality of cooking, flavour balance, textures was outstanding and quite delicate, but enough to identify what was going on, I was in my happy place, amazing food, beautiful surrounding, great waiting staff, gorgeous matching wines….home made bread……ahhhhhhhhh, blisssssssss.

Roasted Sweetbread, Shrimps Tartare and Blanquette Sauce

Can you feel it, the excitement, the joy, taste buds shouting at you to dive in….BOOOOOOOM no.5. I love this kind of food, if you are going to eat meat, then use as much of the animal as possible, don’t waste anything…. I Love sweetbreads, this dish had a small amount of Lemon Gel mounted on top, I love Blanquette, it’s a sparkling wine that originates from Limoux, it’s how Champagne was started, a Monk stole the idea and marketed the hell out of it, I’ve visited one of the original wine producers at a local cookery school. This dish was knockout, there was a content feeling flowing through my veins, I was happy, extremely content and really chilled out.

Hmmmmmm………Lamb…….Cassoulet………BOOOOOOOOOOM no.6. I adore Cassoulet, I have made it, in Gascony, at the cookery school was I was attending the following day, again this dish was clever, very clever. It retained all the flavours of a cassoulet in a kind of deconstructed way, but as you ate it, the flavours came together, like a Cassoulet but lighter..

Lets talk wine next.

I was so busy tucking into a delicious meal I only managed a couple of pictures, but the wine that was served is as follows:

–          AOC Bordeaux Domaine Loumelat “Sauvignon” 2019

–          IGP Pays d’Oc Vingobles Ferrandière « Marsanne » 2018

–          Vin de France Vignobles Jean Claude Mas « Gewurztraminer » 2017

–          AOC Côtes du Roussillon Château Lauriga « Bastien » 2014

–          IGP Périgord Sens Dessus-Dessous

The wines worked very well indeed, I would say, for my palate perfect matches they slipped down very easily.

This dish was chosen in honour, and to remember amazing times approximately 8 weeks ago when I was in the region at my other favourite cookery school. I met two beautiful couples from Ireland, Joan, Seamus, Deirdre and Bernard and we shared many meals and cooking experiences together. During the week they realised I had a love of cheese, in fact I recall having cheese three times a day everyday, well, when in France. We had one particular meal in La Barbacane in Carcassonne Citadel, the medieval city and surprise surprise. I had the ’extra’ cheese course before dessert which was delicious.

So this cheese course was well crafted, Ardi Gasna, which means “sheep’s cheese” in Basque, it’s a French cheese found in the Nive valley of the Pyrenees Mountains. It is an uncooked, pressed, hard cheese matured for 4-6 months before being sold to the market. The cheese is available throughout the year, but the finest produce is available during the spring and summer months when the flavour of the milk is more pronounced. It was served with Nuts, a lovely fruit compote, some olive oil and a ’sauce’, absolutely scrumptious. BOOOOOOOOOOM…….. well, it’s cheese and I am an addict, but this was exceptional.

BOOOOOOOM…. No.7. Well the whole meal was, I think, the best meal I have ever had (ever), only beating Paul Ainsworth No.6 by less than a millimetre, it was that close. Clever wine pairing, a journey of flavours, sometimes intense, sometimes dreamy, sometimes rich, often subtle this is one meal I will never forget, and the main man will apparently pop out after service and say hello to everyone, that does it for me…. Awesome.

Jeez, whats going on now. I was presented with a flower pot and asked to look for a nugget of treasure whilst Rum Baba and Chantilly cream were placed in front of me. A small truffle, with a liquid centre was discovered and another play on textures flavours and an excellent finale to an amazing evening. Food 10/10, Service 10/10, Restaurant 10/10.

Cheers Chef Stéphane Tournié, you and your team made my trip to Toulouse something very special, the food was the best I have ever eaten, and yes, I love Sweet Breads and Frogs Legs, apparently it’s something us British folk don’t like. We chatted for about 10 minutes about food then it was time to go, I had to get those Baton Kirsch into the Fridge back at the hotel before they melted, TAXI!!

……………………….Until Next Time………L8ers………