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.

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