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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Carcassonne, France (2nd in a series)



After we collected our bags in Toulouse we begin our drive to Carcassonne and our stay at the Best Western Le Donjon located in the heart of the “old” city – inside the ancient castle located there.  We met our driver of legendary status Andre; he is a large and robust looking man with a lean physique and Michel mentioned to me that he was Special Forces in the French army.  This pleases me as I’m now feeling much more secure (I didn’t really have many concerns anyway).  Michel assures us that he is the “Very Best of the Best” and that we would all be in very good hands.

Chef Michel and Andre having lunch together

Andre doing what he does best!
 After our arrival we are secured a tour with a guide that possesses an unusually dry sense of humor.  He thinks that scolding his patrons and customers is funny and of course his efforts are lost in translation (I've been dying to coin that phrase!) as we Americans often find ourselves wanting to be the center of attention.

This guy was NOT funny at all!
 I was very interested to find that there were more than just one or two campaigns during the period of the Crusades.  Carcassonne played a part during this period as the stronghold was an outpost for refuge as well as attack – fantastic stuff.  I’m fascinated with the lore of romantic battle (although most would suggest that there is nothing but destruction when regarding battle).

We also found out that the clergy at the time whether it is a bishop, friar or the like, carried an enormous weight of influence during these times.  The religious sects (primarily Catholicism) struggled with separating themselves between church and state as all factions at this time wanted power, fame and fortune and the church was caught in the middle but by their own devices.  Corruption and deceit were the order of the day and there was, literally, no one you could trust.

The castle of Carcassonne, France
Medieval streets

An Erie feeling at night

Le Parc
After our tour we all got gussied up for a fantastic dinner at a local restaurant, but this place was unlike any other we’d encounter while in France.  We would nosh on offerings by Chef/Proprietor Franck Putelat of Le Parc restaurant.  Chef Putelat is a friend and Silver Bocuse d’Or medalist in 2003.  Just in case anyone didn’t know what the Bocuse D’or is; it’s the world’s premier cooking competition and is held in Lyon, France (a stop on our itinerary).  We would be eating the food of a guy who (at one time) was the second best chef in the world!  Needless-to-say, I was really looking forward to this occasion as this would be my first such experience.

Exquisite food at Le Parc

Chef's Bouit and Franck Putelat

Le Parc's young staff of chefs.
Evidence of Chef Putelat's participation in the  Bocuse d'Or

Michel Bouit for those of you who don’t know is a classically trained chef from Lyon, France himself and he made sure we were all dressed accordingly that would be appropriate for a two-starred Michelin establishment.  I made sure my tie and suit were pressed expressly for this occasion by inquiring for an iron and board at the front desk of our hotel.  The accommodations in France are vastly different from those in the states (more on that later).  I wanted to show respect where respect is due and I knew we would have occasion to wear a suit and made sure to bring a smart and dashing choice to properly represent myself.

It was wonderful seeing us all assemble in the lobby of our hotel looking very dapper and beautiful; it was our first night and we already broke out the Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.  I like dressing up as it usually means a very special occasion is upon us.  Everything on this trip will be anticipatory and coming up on the façade of Le Parc was just that…..for culinary students we are always sizing up anything and everything regarding an experience as I was checking out the colors and shape of the building on the inside my mind wandered as to what kind of phenomenal treats lie inside.

We weren't disappointed and our first course was a smoked salmon salad with micro-greens sitting atop with pungently flavorful but delicate vinaigrette.  The second course was an assortment of canapés aligned in a row on a rectangular dish accentuating a linear presentation.  There was a mini sandwich of biscuit and foie gras and a mussels offering with cream and cheese presented on the half shell as well as black squid ink macaroons stuffed with the flesh of the squid itself.  Terrific stuff!

Our third course was an oil poached cod sitting atop white asparagus bathing in hollandaise sauce with flavor that exploded in your mouth!  Our fowl course consisted of pigeon and wine-braised root vegetables accented with a vegetable coulis that artfully adorned the plate.  A meal fit for a king indeed!  I truly enjoyed this food as we lingered for hours eating and talking and drinking in the way a dinner of such importance is meant to be.

Afterward we were invited into the kitchen as a prize for selecting culinary as a profession.  What a revelation, I expected to see a myriad of equipment strewn about like that of a chef of such great acclaim.  Much to my dismay, there was a very minimalist and organized kitchen reminiscent of those we see in culinary magazines.  One thing I did notice is that there were chef’s coats encased in frames affixed at the top of walls near the ceiling making a homage to Chef Putelat’s travels and accomplishments much like the Dallas Cowboy’s circle of fame in their football stadium.  This remarkable detail really resonated with me just because I thought this to be a very cool feature of his kitchen.

Simple presentation but exploding w/ flavor

Truffles anyone?

Chef Michel is in his element (The kitchen!)

The fields of France
Today we depart for the col du Bouc and the panoramic view of the valley of l’Aude and Corbieres to look at the vegetation at this time of year.  I must admit that I was a bit skeptical about this stop on our itinerary because walking around in a field was something that I could do back home.  What I found waiting for us in our lobby that morning was a vision of loveliness named Muriel and she would be our guide that day – I’m now more than happy to traipse around a field just as long as she’s involved with this activity.  Aside from Muriel’s presence; this “field-trip” would prove to be one of the most culinary-eccentric events we would do all trip long.  Muriel would walk us by wild asparagus and rosemary and fennel.  She would bend over and pluck plants from Mother Earth and feed them to us like a mother hen would feed her chicks.  We all were in amazement at how these magical herbs tasted filling our mouths with powerful flavor unlike any we’d ever tasted before.

We walked by and sampled more items such as thyme, lavender and more rosemary.  This experience was simply astonishing as I would harken back to the TV shows I watched as a kid remembering the “Galloping Gourmet” describe how ingredients just taste better in Europe or their native countries.  He was right and I will never forget this field of culinary dreams.

Juvet Winery
Our next adventure on this day is to meet Frederic Juvet, Vintner and Wine expert and his wife.  Frederic was exactly what I thought a French vintner should look like.  His frame was moderately tall but portly from all the wonderful meals he had eaten while consuming mass quantities of wine, at least this is what I am telling myself in my head.  He has semi-long silver hair bucking the trend of society’s expectation of what a man should do with his coif.  His pudgy cheeks bounced on his face as he spoke expressing his passion for making wine and cultivating the land.  I've not experienced such enthusiasm for a profession in a long time since I decided to re-invent myself as a chef two years ago.

The epitome of a man loving his job - Frederic Juvet

 He wore an open red shirt that caught the wind with romantic whimsy; he sported pants that had been cut off just a few inches below the knee that resembled culots that a woman would wear suggesting he is very secure in his masculinity but happens to fancy a style befitting his own personal preference.  He had on a very tight t-shirt underneath his open one accentuating his girth of many years feasting and luxuriating in the wine he produces.  He is a mysterious looking gent but elegant man even though he appears to have just come out of the vineyards to greet us.  I’m captivated by him due to his profession, demeanor and character because he encapsulates the wine-making legend in one stout package.

His knowledge of wine, grapes, agriculture and methodology was, seemingly, unsurpassed because everyone was enthralled with every word that escaped his mouth.  I wanted to reach out and grab them and keep these words for myself so that I may benefit from them later or perhaps hold onto them as a souvenir.

One of the many offerings we had on this day

I was spellbound by his knowledge

I had to embrace this man as he embodies everything I treasure

Ryan enjoying life to the fullest!

Juvet vineyards

We tasted 8 wines on this day: a chenin blanc from the Loir Valley (divine), a Riesling (sweet but with character), a burgundy (made from pinot noir grapes – nice), a corbiener made from 80% sirah grapes and 20% granache grapes (a bit spicy and enticing),  a Crozes Hermitage (syrupy with high alcohol content),  a 100% sirah (silky and spicy), a Bordeaux made from 70% cabernet sauvignon grapes and 30% merlot grapes (wonderful and full bodied) and finally a proper champagne from the Benoit Lahaye winery (elegant and delightful).

A very happy crowd indeed!

 While seated at our white linen tables; I reached down to touch the fabric of the tablecloth listening to the laughter of the group echoing in my ears hoping…..wishing for this moment to never end.      

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

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