Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A walk into the hills, and a couple of good meals

 Colliore below, Roussillon coast beyond
After more than a fortnight in which we’d only dined out in an evening twice, we went a bit bonkers in the final week of our stay in Collioure and did so three times.

But this story starts a little bit earlier than you might expect.

Back in May, The Other Half made the trip to Perpignan for the game between Les Dragons Catalans and his beloved Castleford Tigers. The sacrifices he makes!

On the basis that I’d enjoyed a few days on my own the month before, gadding about in northern Germany, he took a day longer than usual – and used it to take the train to Collioure.

Boles de Picolat
Unfortunately, it turned out to be a grim, rainy day, with no opportunity to sit on a beach. The south of France, like most of western Europe, was hardly exempt from the long winter and the non-existent spring.

But before he returned to Perpignan, and after visiting the chateau to see an exhibition there (I’m not quite the only culture vulture in the house), he’d visited a brasserie that we had not tried before on our joint visits.

In large part, the reason that he picked Le Marinade was quite simply because it was open.

Sitting at a small table just inside, with a view over the damp square onto which backs the tourist information office, and from where August’s Fêtes de St Vincent is officially declared open by the mayor, he perused the menu – and realised that it offered a regional speciality that neither of us had tried before: Boles de Picolat.

Créme Catalan
This is Catalan meatballs, and he was most impressed.

During our second week, we were contemplating lunch one non-beach day, and thought that it might prove the ideal thing. But unfortunately, it was almost the end of the day’s lunch service – which is actually a recommendation, when you think about it.

But, early last week, when we had nothing particularly in for the evening, and I was feeling less inclined than usual to contemplate cooking – let alone actually doing it – I suggested that we sauntered along to Le Marinade and see if we couldn’t get a table.

We had no trouble with that, and sat down with a very specific meal choice in mind.

Graphosoma lineatum
The Boles de Picolat was excellent. The lovely meatballs – very light and with meat that had been very finely minced indeed so that it was close to a paté – came in a tomato and pepper sauce, with mushrooms and olives.

This is a top notch Catalan dish.

As a pure coincidence (I'm sure) there were several German diners around us. Does a menu with meatballs draw the northern Europeans? Anyway, I'll be cooking this at home soon, so watch out for the recipe.

In the meantime, after our main course, The Other Half tempted me toward the créme Catalan.

Gnarled vine
Now I utterly adore a créme brûlée, but I’ve only had the Catalan version once before, some years ago, in Barcelona.

The main difference is that it’s flavoured with orange. But my memories of it were also that it was staggeringly rich and very heavy, and that, me being me, after a fairly heavy meal, it was too heavy for my insides.

The Other Half, however, is a connoisseur of crème Catalane, and he assured me that, in Pays Catalan at least, it’s much lighter.

On the simple grounds that it was the obvious choice to conclude a specifically Catalan meal, I decided to give it another go.

And I’m very glad that I did. Texturally, this was as light as a yogurt. The orange came through nice and clear, but there was also a hint of warm spice behind it.

All in all, it was a very, very good meal, and a rare opportunity to taste some authentic, rustic Catalan cooking.

The second eating out of the week was a case of going back to Le St Elme, after a five-hour walk in the hills left us feeling that home catering was beyond either of us.

A few words about the walk itself: we took the road out of the village and into the hills and vineyards that Le Petit Train Touristique takes – only of course, we were rather slower.

We had been entirely sensible and made sure we had water, bread, cheese, charcuterie and some fruit, had dressed sensibly, and took our time.

Mind, I had the camera with me so it also became another photo safari: I been becoming more and more fascinated by the scenery, by the plant life and insect life.

Fort St Elme
There was a red and black striped, beetle-like insect on just one of the many varieties of thistle-like plant you find. A Graphosoma lineatum, I learned later.

There were more blackberries growing wild.

There were occasional sisal plants – tall as trees and towering alone or in small groups.

There were cork trees with some of the bark carefully stripped. It grows back, so can be harvested for use in the local wine industry, making any use of plastic ‘corks’ seem even crazier. We knew from previous visits that the hills behind the village were first planted with vines by the Phoenicia, some 3,000 years ago, after they’d discovered that Port Vendre was a deep safe port in a storm.

Dead flower head
There were also, of course, lots of vines bearing lots of grapes. Some dusky, some pale, some glossy black. The harvest is coming soon in an area where they make some magnificent wines – and in particular, a wide array of delightful rosés.

There was vast sprays of wild fennel – but without any of the small snails we’d seen in Salses. And so much more.

There was even – dare I say it? – another fort. Dagommier this time; built just the right distance from Fort Elme for them to lob shots at each other.

It’s been in disrepair for some time, but recently, regional artist Marc-Andre 2 Figueras bought it for a single euro and has found funding to do it up. What he’ll do with it remains to be seen, but it’s got to be better than the rather dangerous relic that it was.

We’d decided on that day for a walk because the forecast was for some cloud – in other words, it would be better walking weather. But as we neared Fort St Elme, the sun started seriously breaking through, and we could enjoy an incredible view of Collioure below us and the entire Roussillon plain beyond.

We sat down for a while for some fodder, only to watch in amazement as a rather large ant decided that it was going to take a fallen flake of bread and, come what may, cart it off to the nest. An ant – big by British standards certainly, but still an ant – carrying this piece of bread crust that was, by comparison with it itself, huge.

We carried on, passing Fort St Elme itself, and moving on.

We’ve done the route a number of times in that little tourist ‘train’, but this gave us time to stop and look. And even to think that, next year, we might be able to manage the walk to one of the higher hills beyond, to Madeloc. How ambitious Collioure makes us!

Fennel and a path and open sky
From there on, it was relatively easy, as we followed the road spiraling gently down toward Port Vendre.

But as walkers, we were able to break away and head more directly toward Collioure – although not much more directly.

There was a path over a hill beyond the road, and we took that. In the end, it took us little nearer our destination, but it was nonetheless enjoyable and felt pleasantly deserted.

By the time we got back to Collioure itself, we’d been walking for approximately five hours – and I really didn’t much like cooking or even contemplating what to eat.

And another Collioure sunset
So we went to Le St Elme and The Other Half enjoyed a steak, while I tucked into gambas and chips.

We were pleasantly tired – and also absolutely ravenous.

It might not be the greatest food in town, but it was perfect for what we needed.

And that’s the tale of two of our eatings-out – and one excellent walk.

And it’s also arguably a perfect illustration of why we self cater: the options. They’re beautiful.

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