Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A weekend to savour - Montpellier ho!

We'd planned this weekend for quite a while. The 'event' was the Rugby World Cup match between the USA & South Africa. It was also a break for us between a very hectic summer and an October which will see four separate sets of friends coming to stay. The October is going to be great fun, but a little time off was needed beforehand.
We started off at about 10:00 Friday morning leaving Rupert with the dog sitter; much to his disgust! We drove down through Albi and stopped at Castres which we had previously driven through, but never explored. Castres turns out to be a very attractive small city with lots of nice buildings, squares and a river running through. We had coffee and explored both the town & the markets that were on that day.
By now its lunch time, but we're both saying something light as we're booked to have dinner at our hotel that evening. I'm for an eat as you go sandwich ;Linda's for sitting down. As a compromise we sat down, but I choose where. I found a small restaurant off on a side street, but which overlooked the river. Le Medieval by name. It was a lovely old vaulted cellar which had been nicely done up. The 2 course lunch was 11 Euros. As it was Friday both the entrée & plat de jour were fish. Wanting something light we chose both fish courses. What a treat! The entrée was a crab & white fish terrine that was absolutely perfect. Beautifully balanced. (I lucked out;Linda in her quest for a light meal gave me one of her pieces of terrine before she'd tasted it. No way was she getting it back despite begging!) The plat was a large fillet of Merlin just cooked through with a thin crispy coating; delicious. This came with nice assortment of fresh vegetables. What a nice lunch. I want to go back in the evening to try their casoulette.

Onwards we went checking out Beziers (Not particularly nice) and Penzas (nicer, but stuffed with Brits) as we wended our way through some nice villages. We reached Mergan where our hotel was to find it a very nice village with a superb château. The hotel was nice enough and the room was Ok. We took a stroll though the village admiring the architecture - beautiful.
Dinner was not so hot. They were trying hard with the food, but it didn't quite come off. L's starter was gazpacho which was OK, but too heavy on the tomato. Mine was a layered cup of tomato puree and puréed eggplant with a fromage blanc layer in between. Again the execution was heavy handed. The lamb shoulder with rice that Linda had as a main was a disaster. My fish lasagne was Ok, but spoiled by poorly done vegetables. Linda opted for their dessert buffet which looked good, but had soggy pastry . My cheese was good. Ah well; you can't win them all. At 110 Euros for the bed, breakfast, dinner & wine one couldn't complain about the price.
Next morning we headed North-east to Clermond-Herault passing Villeneuvette where we had stayed before very successfully. Wending our way into the mountains we went through a succession of interesting villages (one had a sculptor who did fantastic outdoor animals; another had several potters; another had super views to the coast.) before reaching St-Guillaume de Desert. Although touristy this village is well worth a visit. The monastery was founded in 804 and is a wonderful place to enjoy. The town square has the most enormous plane tree we'd ever seen. We drove on up the valley & back out onto the plain, again through nice countryside & villages.
Just before lunch time we reached St-Jean-de-Felix. The road into the center was blocked off, but we could see a crowd of people. Had to park & see what was going on. Turned out that the locals were engaged in running the bulls! There were about a dozen horse men & women. They charged up the street & came back with a bull sort of sandwiched between their horses and the local lads running along trying to grab the bull's tail. Meantime lots of firecrackers are being set off. The bull is chased into a covered truck. This happened three times then the riders gathered at the back of the truck, the bulls were forced out & the whole gang charged up the street. Fascinating. We found a little pizza place for lunch. (young couple, newly decorated by IKEA with simple, but nice design and top quality pizza.)
Onwards to Montpelier. We found our hotel, Les Arceaux, easily. Its a very nice small hotel & our recently redecorated room was very well done although quite small. We'd recommend the hotel as the staff were very friendly & competent. We drove the car down to a secure garage then walked into the town centre. Montpelier is a great place, very crowded last Saturday what with university students, the rugby crowds and locals. We had a nice walk around & then went back to the hotel to meet our friends. We had tea with them then went up for a rest as we wanted to be fresh for dinner that evening.
Dinner was at Jardin de Sens a Michelin 2 star which is well known and has been responsible for training many of the best chefs in SW France. The main restaurant is one very large room surrounded on three sides by glass walls looking out into the garden. The dining is on three levels and the whole adds up to a very pleasing ambience. After much debate we all opted for the shorter of the two menus. (125 Euros). Its a good thing we did as I doubt that any of us would have made it through the long menu. The wine list was good as one would expect if a bit over priced. We were treated to a succession of amuses, extras and courses that could not be faulted. Presentation was flawless and the meal flowed perfectly from course to course. It was not, as can be the case, a progression of individual dishes, but a meal that made sense. Highlights were the lobster course, an amazing chestnut & mushroom soup, the superb veal and a pre-dessert of sorbet with fresh pineapple which was an ideal palate cleanser before the main desserts. A truly wonderful meal, impeccably served. ( they didn't turn a hair when we asked them to slow up our service so we'd have more time between courses. This was done and from then on the pace was ideal.)

I observed what I though was a nice touch and showed the class of this restaurant. The table below us had a French family of four (mom, dad & grown up children) They were having the same menu we were, but were about one course ahead of us. I was enjoying my 'preview' until after the pre-dessert they got an extra course. This was a small cake with ice cream on a beautiful plate. On Dad's plate Happy Birthday had been delicately written in chocolate. He was delighted. No fuss, no bother, no singing waiters, no cameras. Just a nice subtle gesture. I do love the French!

The rest of the weekend will be in another post as this one is too long already.

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