Thursday, 30 August 2012

Le petit trainspotting

The view from St Vincent plage.

With the weather in a downward spiral (at least until we leave, according to Meteo France) and hints of the Tramontane forecast, there’s a sense of relief that we managed at least two days on St Vincent beach.

It’s just gone nine in the morning. There’s thunder overhead and rain is making runs past in little surges. Everything else is blissfully peaceful.

Sitting at the dining room table, with a steady flow of coffee, the long, narrow window lets in the light and the cool air and the sound of the weather.

The view beyond the tiny, wrought iron balcony encompasses a deep apricot painted gable end with blue shuttered windows and terracotta-tiled roof. Beyond, there’s a glimpse of the lower foothills of the Pyrenees as they slope down to the sea.

Stand on the balcony and there is the moulin and Fort Elme to the left; to the right, as the hills rise away over the rooftops, the fortifications built to bombard the Elme are visible, and then the Tour de la Madeloc.

Erected in 1285 by James II of Majorca, to guard his Roussillon territories against attacks from the north by the French and from the south by the Aragonese, it was tarted up by Vauban in the 17th century.

At 656m, it can seem to follow you around. A very good place in which to build such a tower, in other words – although it must have been a nightmare getting the men and materials up there.

But before the weather cooled, we spent two days on St Vincent plage, staring at just that view, but from across the bay.

It has almost become one of our habits when sitting there to see if either of us can spot Le Petit Train on its slow progress up the hills, through the vineyards and up to Fort Elme, before it disappears from view for the descent to Port Vendres.

Made up of three yellow ‘carriages’, pulled by an ‘engine’, you see such tourist vehicles all over the place. But this is the one we’ve been on – and this is the one we sit and try to spot and we catch the rays.

And there is also, of course, Au Casot at the back of the beach. A ‘casot’, I now know, is a small, stone hut in the vineyards.

Day one, and I ate gambas: big, meaty things, perfect with aioli on the side.

Day two, and it was a hulking slab of tuna, cooked ‘bleu’, just as I had asked. Divinely moist and tasty, with a drizzle of syrupy Banyuls vinegar as a perfect compliment: a real treat.

Their ice cream is always perfection too. There is nothing complicated about what you eat  at Au Casot, but the cooking is perfection and it never disappoints.

And this year, they have a new little poster on one piece of wall, making it plain that they simply do NOT do mussels.

In between times, I bathed. More to the point, I stuck the goggles on and the snorkel in, and popped my head below the water to look at an utterly different world.

Fish swam around my legs. Now usually, they swim away when you’re near them. But by using a foot to rummage around in the pebbles and sand on the bottom, I could keep their attention – obviously they were wondering if there was any food in the offing.

It was fascinating. The water is so clear you can see them in such detail: the astonishing construction of their almost clear fins (and how they use them) and the colours of their lithe bodies shimmering as the sunlight pierces the water.

There were elongated fish with a single go-faster stripe; others, the shape of gurnards (that’s not what they were), nosing into rocks and disturbing the sea bed to find food; and baby versions of these too.

Shoals of something that looked like small bass, shoals of small fish with delicate yellow mouths; and others that looked like small dorade – or not so small, in some cases, and the more the size of your dinner plate.

It was charming and delightful – and not without a certain awe.

I really must learn to swim better, so that I can do more of this.

And then I’d sit again, drying in the sun, and watching to see if I could spot Le Petit Train once more, and casting an eye over the pebbled beach that holds such fascinating wonders itself – like this dead dragonfly; just look at the delicacy of the wings.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The trouble with Rupert

There are times when I wonder if we’re being had; if some things that we shake our heads at in disbelief are, indeed, intended to do precisely that, rendering us impotent in the face of them.

A case in point is the latest furoré surrounding Prince Harry – and more to the point, the claims of the Sun to be championing freedom of the press by publishing the already infamous pictures of him in the altogether.

This was followed by The Dirty Digger himself tweeting a sort of ‘keep yer pecker up’ message to the doubtlessly somewhat red-faced royal himself. Except, of course, since it was a tweet, it was public And it didn’t involve any sort of apology.

To top it all, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has told the BBC that: “I don’t think it's right for politicians to tell newspaper editors what they can and can't publish”.

My ironyometer has just whimpered and given up the ghost.

The theory is that British newspapers cannot simply publish anything and everything. In the case of privacy, they have to have a public interest.

Now the fact that the pictures of Harry were already to be found on the internet doesn’t actually change that.

Nor does the whinging and whining from some in the tabloid world that they’re ‘under attack’ and ‘journalism has gone to the dogs’ because of Lord Leveson’s inquiry into media ethics.

Let’s be clear: trashy ‘celebrity’ gossip and stories are not ‘great journalism’. And – the real nitty gritty – there is rarely anything to suggest that such things are in the public interest.

Because the public interest is not a synonym for some of the public are interested.

A quick example.

Some years ago – in 1992, to be precise – Tim Yeo was a junior minister in John Major’s government.

At the Conservative Party conference that autumn, he stood up and railed against single parents. He’d made other comments, in public, about the importance of the family.

Yet before the year was out, Yeo was revealed to be having an affair (he was married) and the single woman that he was having an affair with was pregnant by him.

Now that story was in the public interest, since it revealed a politician indulging in the classic game of ‘not do as I do, but do as I say’.

Fast forward to 2002. Quiz show host Angus Deayton was revealed to have had consensual sex (shocking, isn’t it?) with a woman who claimed to have been a prostitute. He was also alleged to have used cocaine.

Yet Deayton, who subsequently lost his job presenting the satirical quiz, Have I Got News for You, had never used his position to suggest that there was a certain way in which anyone else should behave.

It’s doubtful that anyone could even have tried the ‘but he’s a role model’ justification either, since it’s difficult to imagine to whom he would have been such.

Some of the public might have been interested in stories of a grown man having consensual sex (the drug use didn’t seem to interest anyone), yet a poll by the BBC itself showed that 75% of respondents didn’t think he should be sacked.

So what was ‘The Public Interest’ there?

There wasn’t any.

Prince Harry is a 27. He’s a soldier. He’s not married.

He was on holiday. He was having fun – in private.

He didn’t do anything illegal.

Now I’m nobody’s arch-monarchist, but playing strip billiards really isn’t a story. Not a thing about it screams ‘public interest’.

So where Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct News of the World tried to justify its exposé of Max Mosely’s consensual spanking sessions by pretending there was a Nazi theme – sins of the fathers ‘n’ all, apparently, for the Bible-publishing publisher – now Murdoch’s Sun is claiming that publishing the pictures of Harry is a blow for press freedom.

Such a pity the Sun couldn’t have found an actual story to make a stand over, rather than something that required pretty much no journalism at all, since it was already splashed over the internet.

In other words, it wasn’t even news.

The ‘story’ became the Sun’s publication of the pictures.

While there are clearly issues with internet publication of all manner of gossip and salacious tittle-tattle, that does not justify publication.

It’s not merely a sad state of affairs, but a tawdry one, and something that is deeply detrimental to good journalism and a decent level of public discourse, when publishers and editors keep journalists trawling through social media to turn some celebrity’s tweets into the next day’s splash.

And the claims that, if the rags are not allowed to print gossip and scandal, all newspapers will die, is also crass – not least because the same papers do actually tend to make big bucks.

Indeed, the biggest selling point of the Sun is its sports coverage – and football in particular. Not even the gossip.

That does raise the question of the audience, but let’s set aside playing chicken and egg on this one for today.

And in all this, there is too the question of privacy.

First, for all that some of their defenders might moan about celebrities being protected, the tabloids (and various gossip magazines) have never restricted their coverage to the famous.

But even if they did, why would being famous mean that you are expected to give up a private life that is – well, private?

Is it the money? If so, how much do you have to earn before you can expect some intrusion? How much can you be in public life before it become ‘news’ to publish details of your sexual proclivities just for the sake of it?

Well, as noted, that’s irrelevant, given the appearance of Jo and Joanna Public within the pages of tabloids and magazines too.

The publication of the Harry pictures in the Sun could not, some say, have occurred without the okay of Murdoch himself.

Presumably, this is his idea of a statement of ‘I’m bigger than you’ as Leveson continues.

That Hunt should refuse to even support the established principle of the need for a legitimate (or even pretend) public interest justification is hardly a shock.

Hunt has consistently shown that he’s yet another of Murdoch’s stream of political bum boys, ready to do anything for the god-almighty Digger.

But that he does this now, after everything that has come spewing out about his behaviour in connection with the proposed BSkyB deal, really does suggest that he has absolutely no shame. But then again, he’d have resigned long ago if he had.

Murdoch the holy knight (a gift from Pope John Paul II, which presumably had nothing to do with his being divorced and remarried) may have been tottering in the last 18 months and, on the basis of his Leveson appearance, have lost his memory (with Ernest Saunders-like convenience), but this has nothing whatsoever to do with freedom of the press.

This is all about trying to embarrass the Establishment that he claims to dislike, but which he has yearned to be part of for years.

And it is all about trying to show, again, that he is still in charge.

Harry, like so many others for the Murdoch press and the tabloids in general, is just mere collateral damage.

And it indicates, yet again, that for all the claims of some editors and publishers, they cannot be trusted to self regulate.

One wonders what Lord Leveson is making of it all.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

They all came to Elne

In this part of the world, they talk of having 27 centuries worth of history.

Now most places have lengthy histories, but if that sounds like an exaggeration, it isn’t.

And nothing could have made that clearer than a board charting those centuries in timeline form, which hangs in a small room off the cloister at the Cathédrale in Elne.

Originally under the control of the Ibéres, the town was first known as Pyréne, then Illibéris, during which time, in 218 BCE, Hannibal dropped in for a break after crossing the Pyrenees.

The Romans liked it so much that they came, saw, conquered and stayed around for a while, from 118 BCE to 414 CE, during which Elne became Castrum Helenae.

Then the Visigoths came, replaced by the Arabs for around 70 years, and followed by the Carolingians for just over a century.

By the time the Catalans took over in 873, it was Elna. Then the French popped over in 1473 before the Spanish arrived in 1494, to be replaced by the French again in 1642 when they realised they rather liked the place and would keep it. And so the town became Elne.

It was the bishopric of Roussillon from the 6th century, but as nearby Perpignan prospered, Elne declined. In the late Middle Ages, the counts of Roussillon moved their seat there, with a papal bull seeing the Episcopal seat follow in 1601.

The Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie was founded in 1060 and consecrated nine years later, a lasting monument to the Roman style of architecture, with its two towers soaring above the town from the old ville haute.

The cloister is one of the finest examples of the Roman style – and now, centuries later, is one of the major drawing points for tourists, as Elne slowly starts to benefit from the rise in tourism – and the development of an area that, not that long ago, was considered the poor man of France.

And that cloister is astonishing.

It isn’t exaggerating to say that one could almost sense monks walking around, their habits rustling almost imperceptibly. The more imaginative could even be forgiven for thinking they hear the sound of chant on the breeze that brushes the lavender in the quadrangle.

The cloister developed from the Greek and Roman peristyle, or open porch, frequently surrounding an internal garden, and here, the colonnaded shade and the Mediterranean sun present sharp contrasts.

The carvings that decorate columns and walls run from the Romanesque to the Gothic, and besides showing Biblical scenes, also include flowers and patterns, together with mythical creatures, including griffins and mermaids.

The church itself is interesting too, with its Romanesque vaulted ceiling – rounded, not rising to a point. There are the usual side chapels and statues and candles, but nothing quite to equal the cloister.

Carvings of griffins.
We had taken the bus from to Elne and wandered upward, into the haute ville, the oldest and highest parts of the town, which surround the Cathédrale.

This small area offers extraordinary views across the plain to the Pyrenees as they slope gently down to the sea at Collioure, and to Perpignan and the Corbières hills in the other direction.

There were geographic advantages to Elne as a point from which to rule.

Next to the tourist information office was an old building that housed the gallery and glass-blowing workshop for Sylvain Magney and Veronique Carvalho.

Heaven alone knows what the heat would have been like if there had been any glass being blown when we were there, but the artist was having a day’s rest.

The glass was lovely. I came away with earrings and a pendant, in a sea green, with bubbles in them, like air rising to the surface. Unique pieces.

Little Zazou.
Artisanal crafts are a part of Elne’s revival and, a short while later, as we ambled among to apparent jumble of Roman walls and later housing, we found a little artists’ enclave with a café serving regional items – even up to Catalan cola.

As we sat amongst the palms, we saw a little cat. A sweet-faced thing, with a touch of mange and very dodgy back legs, one of the craftsmen (he makes harps) told us that this was Zazou.

At 14, she had been abandoned by her owner for being ‘too old’. Apologising for his language, he said how disgusting he thought this was. The artists and craftsmen and women in the café were all making sure that she had food and water.

“She’s not ready to die yet,” he added, looking fondly in her direction, as she lay on the step outside his workshop.

Such selfishness on the one hand and kindness on the other.

After the Cathédrale, we headed for lunch, and found ourselves at the very nearby Au Remp’Arts.

There we both had jambon and melon for a starter; vast portions of sweet, ripe fruit and glorious ham, served on little wooden pallets.

There’s a reason that this is such a classic combination: with quality ingredients, it’s superb.

The Other Half opted for a steak to follow, while I hunted the menu for the fish.

Spotting something called ‘cabillaud’, the fact that it was grilled and coming with aioli suggested that this was in the right area.

Indeed, it was cod. And very nicely done too, arriving on a bed of garlicky potato purée, with a piece of crisped skin and two chives as a garnish, and piles of a sort of julienned version of ratatouille on either side.

With a three-course deal for €26, desserts were a bit of a letdown. The Other Half’s crema catalana was closer to scrambled egg than it should have been – Hurrah! I’m not the only one who can scramble a custard!

My peach melba was simply chopped peach with a little vanilla ice cream and a pile of chantilly cream on top.

But after two excellent courses, at such a reasonable price, it would have been churlish to complain.

We ambled some more as clouds threatened a downpour, and eventually found our way, via a circuit, back to a gallery that contained a number of works by local artist, Ètienne Terrus.

The great advantage of such galleries, as with individual exhibitions of a single artist, is that get a sense of that artist’s journey.

And Terrus had certainly been on a massive journey, artistically speaking.

Looking at works from the late 19th century, there was nothing to suggest what would follow.

Elne, by Ètienne Terrus, 1900.
Technically excellent, but two still lives (of oysters and of a fish with pan) were reminiscent of Gustave Courbet, in terms of the light and use of colour.

But then Terrus discovered Impressionism and, with it, a vastly increased palette of colour.

And where his work went from there sees him now regarded as a precursor to the Fauves – the likes of Matisse (a friend) and Derain and Dufy, many of whom spent much time in Collioure, with which they and their art movement remain inextricably linked.

After a combination of religion, food and art, we made our way back to Collioure, via the hubbub of Argèles sur Mer (great beaches, town built up as the archetypal resort).

It had been a fascinating day.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

A nation of fussy eaters

You don't like olives? Seriously?
If ever there was a time to read stories about British eating habits, it was when you're out in France. The contrasts could hardly be greater.

A survey of 2,000 people, Fussy Food Nation, by appliance manufacturer Hotpoint, was reported at greatest length in the Daily Mail.

It seems that the top 10 least popular foods in the UK are:

Black pudding

Okay, so I can comprehend the snails – it’s what them furriners eat, anyway. And, of course, nothing at all like the cockles and winkles and whelks that are traditional British foods. But then, cockles make the top 10 too.

Offal rates ‘highly’, with tripe, liver and kidneys all making the cut, along with black pudding.

Oysters, squid and anchovies? There’s only one there that isn’t a native British dish.

Olives? Are people serious?

The rest of the list apparently includes avocado, beetroot, goat’s cheese and blue cheese, paté, prawns and mushrooms.

Now obviously the survey isn't saying that many people hate each and every one of the foods listed, but one of the things that strikes me with such a list is the number of traditional British foods that it includes.

In France, many restaurants will have very limited children's menus – in essence, usually little more than a burger and chips. Except that the burger is proper meat, properly cooked. It isn't baby food – and it isn't processed food.

On plenty of occasions, we've seen French children – and we're talking under 10, here – choosing and eating so-called 'adult' dishes: mussels and other seafood, for instance.

It's something that I first started to notice after hearing Rick Stein mention it. And he wasn't making it up.

Yes, McDonalds is popular in France – but it is not (yet, thankfully) as god almighty dominating as in the UK in terms of the culinary landscape.

There isn't a single one – or any other burger joint – in Collioure, and this is a holiday resort.

And indeed, traditional and cheap foods – the latter being a particularly relevant point in these straitened times.

Indeed, in Italy, people are turning away from the supermarket and the ready-meal, and looking back at their 'granny foods'.

They’re doing this precisely because they’re so much better value. And at least one child nutritionist hopes that this will be a silver lining to these times of austerity, in helping to reduce rising obesity.

In other words, that rising obesity does not come from traditional, Italian foods – no, not even pasta – but from processed and ‘convenience’ foods.

Liver and kidney are cheap and versatile and nutritious. And they’re very tasty too.

But as with so much else on the list, it seems that texture is a problem. What texture do the respondents to the survey like? That of the turkey twizzler?

I could be wrong (it has happened), but this seems to me such an indictment of our food culture in the UK – it is like a bloody big firework display illustrating the analysis that Raymond Blanc has made, when he says that we (and the US) have lost our food heritage and that that is a major part of the problems we face.

Within the same few days as these stories emerged came another, as it was reported thatconsumer magazine Which? had tested assorted cereal bars – so often presented to the public as a ‘healthy snack’ – and found that many contain vast amounts of sugar.

Yet therein lies a big piece of the problem: snacking.

And of course, it’s an absolutely massive market.

Little wonder, then, that according to the BBC story, a spokeswoman for Kellogg’s, which makes the Nutri-Grain Elevenses bar and some of the other snacks that Which? tested, ducked the key issue by responding: ‘We’re confused as to why anyone would call a Nutri-Grain Elevenses snack a cereal bar’.”

Well, because ‘cereal’ has come to mean something healthy in the UK – as have ‘nutri’ and ‘grain’. And a ‘snack bar’ is usually readily assumed to be that sort of thing.

For god’s sake, we had an ‘official Olympic cereal bar’ only a few weeks ago – albeit produced by but by Nature Valley and not by Kellogg’s (a company founded by a man who believed cereals would help stop masturbation).

Now, we even have offering a service to deliver ‘healthy snack boxes’ to you, as if that changes the situation.

Why not just not snack? Why, if you eat proper meals, do you need to snack at all?

Ask yourself: why do cultures that do not snack have better heath stats – including, but not limited to, less obesity?

No, it’s not the sole factor, but it is a factor.

So, in the UK, we are (by and large) fussy eaters; we eat masses of junk food and snacks; we have lost touch with our natural food culture; we have (as previous posts have illustrated) lost our kitchen skills; we have a grocery retail market dominated (80%) by supermarkets – and we have a rising obesity crisis.

When you take all that into account, then quelle sur-fucking-prise.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Two ways with French black pudding

Sitting on our tiny, high-walled patio last night, as the wind whipped and whistled above, nursing an espresso and a glass of rosé, it was hard not feel a great sense of satisfaction.

Most immediately, perhaps, because I can drink coffee after a meal these days: it no longer seems to upset my stomach. Or perhaps that’s just when I’m in this neck of the woods.

But second, because I was enjoying rolling round in my mind a feeling that something, somewhere, has clicked slowly but decisively into place.

The other day – I have lost track of time a little – my revamped eating plans saw me nip into one of the village’s little alimentations after we’d finished with everything else for the day, and picking up an utterly essential packet of coffee, plus a pack of two boudin catalan.

Boudin noir is the French version of black pudding, although it’s moister than ours in the UK – possibly down to its still being prepared with raw blood. Boudin catalan is a lightly spiced regional version.

One of the recipes in the little book I’d picked up at the beginning of our holiday had stuck in my mind when mulling what to cook.

It was an omelette, with boudin, bacon, artichoke hearts – and various other ingredients.

Actually, it was more what we’d call a frittata, but let’s not be pedantic.

Since we hadn’t had any boudin at this stage – and we usually have it at least once while here – I decided to cook something along these lines.

Simply, I softened a large and finely chopped banana shallot in olive oil, before adding a couple of finely chopped cloves of garlic.

The local rose garlic is absolutely wonderful: I carried a kilo back to London last year. It was gone in six weeks. The intention this year is to double that.

Anyway, back to the frittata.

The shallot and garlic were allowed to cook very gently for a long while – probably far longer and far more gently than I’d normally do at home.

Into this went three of the remaining cooked potatoes from the duck a few days earlier, drained, dried and sliced.

A touch of paprika and a very generous grinding of black pepper were stirred in. Then the skinned and sliced boudin was added, before everything was topped with four large eggs, beaten and lightly seasoned.

It was cooked very gently for around 10 minutes (and checked to see if the egg had set enough that it would fall easily away from the side of the frying pan) before being popped under a pre-heated grill until it was just starting to turn golden.

Now I really don’t have the best record with frittatas – they’ve been, in the past, too solid and probably over-seasoned.

But that’s another thing that’s happening here, without any deliberate intent: the amount of salt I’m using has decreased. And I’m not finding that I need to add any when I get to the table.

What also appears to be happening is that I’m cooking at a less rushed pace – and this is almost certainly helping too.

But fast forward a couple of days. There was a boudin and a bit left over in the fridge, and it needed using up.

Popping into the alimentation again at the end of the day, I was wondering what to accompany it with, browsing the shelves, when I spotted tins of haricot beans.

The germ of an idea took root.

More shallot and garlic, chopped finely again and then softened just as gently in plenty of olive oil.

Then a couple of roasted peppers from a jar in the cupboard, sliced and popped in the pan, along with some of the beans, rinsed and drained, the remaining two potatoes (drained and dried) and a sprinkle of paprika.

And leave for a further 10 minutes of very gentle cooking.

Two teaspoons of Catalan tapenade (olives, tomatoes, peppers and spices) were stirred through, before the remaining boudin, skinned and sliced thickly, was added, and the whole given a further 10 minutes, so that meat could warm through.

It didn’t look particularly pretty, but it tasted pretty good, and all it needed on the side was the usual bread – not least to mop up the juices.

The feeling, though, was that something had clicked about cooking – slow and gentle particularly, but also in terms of a little bit of an understanding of and feel for the cuisine of this area.

Of course, sausage and beans is a classic combination, but I seem to be managing combinations better.

And all without a hundred cookbooks to hand – although I will stress that those books have helped me learn a very great deal: arguably a huge part of the foundation of what I’ve been doing here.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Fortifications and fabulous food

Everybody knows the name Nobel, but Alfred Bernhard didn’t just give his name to some international prizes, he was also a prodigious inventor, with his achievements including dynamite and, later, gelignite.

Each of these in turn made safe processes such as mining – although obviously both also had applications within armaments.

A contrary man, Nobel himself was a pacifist, but had set up more than 90 armaments factories by the time of his death.

At Paulilles, which lies on the Mediterranean coast between Port Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer, one of his associates, Paul François Barbe, built the French Nobel Dynamite Factory in 1870.

The factory only finally stopped working in 1984 and, in 1998, the site was sold to the Conservatoire du littoral (a sort of French National Trust) to stop major development.

In 2005, the General Council of the Pyrénées-Orientales started the renovation of nine buildings and the destruction of 70 more, together with the landscaping of 17 hectares to turn the area into a free ‘ecological recreational park’.

The dynamite factory workers – some of whom died in the process of this dangerous work – are commemorated in two murals, while some of the old machinery and a couple of signs are on display.

Part of the park includes a very small wood, which itself includes the fenced-off remains of some of the WWII German fortifications that after that the German army took control of the factory.

A sea wall erected at the same runs across the back of the beaches in the area.

But none of this was really new.

The area’s coastline and the hills just inland have been fortified – and then fortified some more – over the centuries. It’s a region that has seen an extraordinary amount of military action.

Fort Saint-Elme, which watches over Collioure, was last taken by the Spanish in the 1790s, in the War of the First Coalition.

The French decided they weren’t having any such nonsense and built new fortifications at just the right distance so that, once complete, they could lob cannon balls at Saint-Elme.

Once the walls were breached, the Spanish decided to call it a day and fled down hill and away, via the sea.

Vauban sentry box with Catalan flag.
Earlier, during the reign of Louis XIV, the royal castle – together other buildings in the area – had been strengthened by Marshall Vauban, who was the foremost military engineer of the day.

His work is visible in many other places throughout the region, including at Villefranche de Conflent (see picture: Vauban's Fort Liberia is in the background, on the mountain side).

But back to Paulilles.

There are three beaches in the area, all with excellent, clear waters. Indeed, the preservation includes the sea areas nearby, where underwater meadows provide a nursing home of huge importance to the region’s aquatic health.

The bus ride from Collioure (€1 and air-conditioned) took around 20 minutes. We spent a couple of hours wandering; first around the gardens and the small ‘prairie’ at the site, looked in the buildings that were open to the open to the public – one of the large halls was holding a small exhibition on the sun and sun worship, which was interesting.

There was a repair and building yard too for the traditional Catalan barques.

One of the pleasures of this was seeing some rather more inland Mediterranean scenery. Grasses and flowers and trees; a variety of pines and a number of oaks – and even a plane or two (though clearly not London ones).

And then we wandered toward the main beach. Which was rammed. In which case, after a short break, sitting under pines behind the sea wall, we decided to head for the second beach, in the next cove, and reached by a path through the wood mentioned above.

I do wish that, if people are going to make stairs in hillsides, they’d remember that some of us only have little legs.

But I made it up – and down again.

And I’m glad I did, for a variety of reasons.

The photography was right up my street.

That the remains of old buildings (more of the fortifications?), now sporting modern street art, are fenced off was a source of frustration: with a camera in hand, I always become ever more inquisitive, and see interest – perhaps even beauty? – in less than obvious places.

Rusted old machinery is a favourite for this reason; similarly, a dead flower and the snapped end of a thick branch.

We had been close to a little wobble too, with the discovery that, while there was a small café on the main site, it only served drinks. Little wonder that French visitors were arriving with cool boxes.

So we headed up the hill and into the wood, musing that while we haven’t exactly been eating big lunches, this trip might need to be shorter than intended if no lunch were available.

But as the next beach hoved into view, so too did a small, unassuming café/snack bar at the back of it; low and with a terracotta tiled roof.

We headed straight over the sand for it – only to find that it was far more than a humble snack shack, but a proper restaurant. With reservations.

Since we had no reservation, and since it was full, we made one for an hour later, when they said they could fit us in.

And so we sat on the beach while we waited – hardly purgatory – and watched the world go by.

Sole Mio – I have no idea why it has an Italian name – has been there for around 30 years and it becomes clear very quickly why you’re likely to need to book.

Sitting outside, under a canopies, at extremely comfortable chairs and with the sea in sight and within smell, we ordered from a menu that is, in many ways, like a slightly more haute version of Au Casot, the beachside restaurant in Collioure that I adore.

It’s an essentially simple menu, with seafood dominant. You don’t choose separate side dishes, but these come as a set (and simple) part of the dish.

The Other Half started with pan tomato – the classic Catalan bread, rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato. I started with carpaccio of St Jacques – raw scallops.

It arrived as beautiful mosaic of thin, ivory flesh, drizzled with oil and lime juice, a hint of paprika and black pepper, and chopped fresh herbs (two parsleys, coriander, chives), with a garnish of diced tomato.

The scallops were sweet and smooth and so soft they almost melted in the mouth.

There was exactly enough lime juice to cut through that sweetness without leaving a tart impression, and the herbs lent a delicate fragrance to the dish (I don’t usually like coriander except in green thai curry, but here it was used sparingly and well). The peppers left a pleasing hint of heat.

It was, quite simply, an outstanding dish.

When your starter is so, so good, the main will always struggle to match up to it.

While The Other Half tucked into a sizable portion of magrat de canard, I had squid with persillade, aïoli and a single medium baked potato, with a garnish of two clams.

The garnish was too risky. The squid was excellently cooked, although the aïoli wasn’t as garlicky as I like. But this is being picky.

There was a tempting dessert menu, but what was most tempting was the list of ice creams.

And on the grounds that we haven’t actually been eating out much, I pigged and had three scoops – rum and raisin (with real rum and with soft, sweet raisins), coffee (with frozen beans) and salted caramel with fleur de sel.

A demi of rosé helped to wash it all down.

And then we slumped beneath the German sea wall for a further hour or so, before wandering back through the scorching heat, past vineyards, to catch the bus back to Collioure – from a bus stop that is part of a carpark which, I should point out, has a little wooden cabin that acts as a wine bar, also selling Banyuls wine vinegar.

For ourselves, we waited for further liquid refreshment until we were back in Collioure.