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Walking with sheep

A 180 km trek is nothing to the sheep of the Lot Valley during their annual Transhumance. Nick Harman pulls on his boots and falls in behind

‘They aren’t moutons, they are brebis,’ explains shepherd Frédéric Lestang in the heavily accented, semi-patois French of the Lot valley. As we talk his dogs fall back through our legs and chase along any straggler ‘ewes’ from the 700 strong flock we’re driving down a narrow stone-walled path. The ewes pack together tightly as the walls funnel them in but they maintain their pace, clearly happy to be on the move.

Which is just as well as they’ve just begun a journey of fifteen days, one which will see them leave behind their winter pastures in the Lot valley and ascend 180 kilometres to the dormant volcanic slopes of the Cantal. Here fresh grass and wild flowers watered by the melted snow will feed them summer long while their pasture back in the Lot burns away in the heat. Frederic himself will live in a ski lodge alongside his flock until late August before they all descend in time for the ewes to give birth to their lambs, the ‘product’ that makes the money.

Behind us is a motley crew of walkers of all ages, skipping as they try to avoid the natural waste products dropped by the flock ahead of them. This is the Transhumance 2013, a sustainable and ancient practice newly restored to life that anyone can join in with for a morning, a day or even the whole fifteen day journey.

We’d left our initial starting place, the little village of Espedaillac, to the sound of accordions and long speeches and fuelled by wine, beer and chunks of barbecued lamb. The brebis had surged out of their pen like a woolly tsunami, all baa’ing loudly and clanking the bells they wear. Brilliant late afternoon sunlight soon replaced the earlier clouds and we began to regret wearing so many clothes as the walking became more demanding.

Each stage of the transhumance is calculated to be about right for an averagely healthy person as well as for the brebis and each ends with a welcome party in the village stop. After eating and drinking a coach is provided to take the walkers back to their cars. All walkers can book a stage ahead of time and be helped with a selection of B&B, hotels and gites.

The Transhumance project has only been running a few years but already it’s a great success, an example of how different government, tourist and agricultural groups can work together to create an event that is good for everyone and is great fun too. I spoke with village mayors along the route, as a well as with shepherds and fellow walkers, and the mood was consistently upbeat; one couple had even come all the way from Colorado, USA to take part.

Walkers can take time out from the stages whenever they want to visit the remarkable medieval towns and villages dotted all over the Lot. Places such as St Cirque La Popie, a town perched as if contemplating suicide over a steep drop into the Lot valley below, its streets and small shops populated by self-professed artists. Andre Breton had a house here and the views he had down into the valley are giddying, as no doubt were the surrealist friends who came to visit him.

Also nearby is Figeac, another of the transhumance stops, with more lanes snaking past houses built back in the distant past. But if all this antiquity gets a bit much though there is the Champollion museum, a modern masterpiece created from the shell of the house where the man who cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone was born.

Everywhere in the region you can eat well; this is the land of duck, saffron, cheese and in season, gorgeous truffles and ceps. I started my mornings with the local Rocamadour goats cheese drizzled with honey, a treat only to be enjoyed in the region as it’s best eaten at just six days old and doesn’t travel.

But I certainly travelled and after a few pleasant hours of walking on that first evening, taking in lungful’s of clear air filled with the aroma of emerging leafy growth, wild garlic and herbs, we crested a rise and suddenly we were on the edge of a drop with a view that had me stepping back involuntarily. Far down below us we could see the monastery of a village, shrunk to train set size by the distance.

‘That’s where we spend the night,’ said Frederic as the flock began the almost vertical descent down string-thin paths used for centuries by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The path was soon churned up by the sheep ahead and we found ourselves careering downhill  slightly out of control, boots sliding on boulders as round as marbles, frantically waving our arms and grabbing onto trees, as well as each other, to remain upright.

After fifteen minutes we landed, marching proudly behind what I was now beginning to consider ‘our flock’ and delivering hearty ‘bonsoirs’ to French villagers as they emerged from their houses in the gathering twilight to see us pass by. The younger ones gawked in amazement and the old ‘mamies’ and ‘papies’ smiled broadly, no doubt remembering seeing the transhumance back in their youth.

In the monastery grounds a traditional band had struck up old songs, the barbecue was grilling lamb and chicken and stalls were serving  the local delicacy ‘pastis’, a  saffron pastry not the drink, which was being quickly sold to hungry walkers. I sat myself down gratefully on a bench by a trestle table and greedily filled my plate with lamb chops, their fat crispy and rich and the meat beautifully pink and moist.

A large plastic cup of red wine from Cahors to the south made it a meal that was the equal of anything I’ve eaten anywhere. Sometimes the meal that you’ve earned with your muscles tastes better than anything else in the world.

I rested my weary legs, felt healthier than I had in an age and began looking forward to getting back to my hotel, and then next morning after a good breakfast with that goats cheese figuring strongly, getting back on the trail and walking behind the brilliant brebis once more.

The Transhumance will take place again next year  www.transhumance.info/participez/

Thanks to www.tourisme-lot.com and  www.valleedulot.com for their invaluable help

 This piece appears on Foodepedia

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A bite on the ocean wave

Cruise ships can have a bit of a dodgy rep when it comes to food, but P&O’s Azura has plenty to make even fastidious foodies fall in love. Nick Harman waddles up the gangplank

It’s not the first time I’ve eaten Indian food with the sensation that the room’s moving up and down, but it’s the first time that it really is. I’m in Sindhu,  Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar’s restaurant at sea, a fine dining palace on top of Azura, one of the world’s largest cruise ships.

The mysterious Isle of Wight

Azura had sailed earlier from Southampton and, even before the sun had set over the Isle of Wight, I was nosing about Sindhu to see how it was possible to create true Michelin star Indian dining on the ocean wave.

The decor certainly looks the part; dark woods, sumptuous booths and the aromas from the kitchen, or as we salty sea dogs say, the galley redolent of fine dining. With grills going and even a tandoori oven, the kitchen looks like any other professional Indian kitchen, except for the extra lips and edges needed to stop pans sliding around in any rough seas.

Guess who?

Normally Atul leaves Sindhu in the very capable hands of its head chef, but he’d left his Mayfair restaurant Benares and Saturday Kitchen and all the other commitments of a Michelin starred chef, to personally come aboard as part of P&O’s food and wine themed cruise from Southampton to the Mediterranean and back. When he flew home in four days’ time, having conducted a master class, a visit to a Spanish fish market and a Q&A session with passengers televised for the whole ship, Eric Lanlard of Channel 4 Baking Mad fame would come on board to demonstrate fine patisserie and after him wine expert and bow tie aficionado Olly Smith.

Full steam astern

Food features heavily on cruise ships of course; in fact one old cruising hand told me that the smarter ladies bring along extra dress sizes to allow for the inevitable expansion as they sail along. Few cruise companies take it quite as seriously as P&O though. On Azura, along with Sindhu, there are two more fine dining restaurants as well as the more standard buffets, grills and pizza places. Everyday good food is included in the cost of the ticket, but if you want to dine in places like Sindhu a small extra charge is made on each visit. For Sindhu it’s £15 and gets you appetiser, pre pudding and petits fours into the undoubted bargain.

The first night we left our cabin with, amazingly, an actual balcony, to try out The Glass House. Here Olly Smith selected wines are by the bottle or by the glass, courtesy of the clever Inotec inert gas system that keeps the wine fresh. The decor was modern and stylish and the ship stabilised so well that the only clue we were off the coast of France was the almost imperceptible movement under our feet. The ship sails slowly, not to save fuel but to keep things smooth, and Azura moves through the sea like a block of flats on castors. Bad sailors have no worries here and we tucked into a cool Modern European menu with gusto before wobbling off to sample the wide choice of entertainment on offer shipwide.

Chef in action

Next day was a cooking Masterclass with Atul himself. Softly spoken, self-deprecating and witty, Atul enthralled his audience as, with us looking on closely, he cooked some signature dishes, answered questions about himself and his career and gave lots of cooking tips before serving a memorable lunch of spider crab, tandoori chicken and sea bass that was as good as anything I’ve ever eaten in his main restaurant in Berkeley Square.

It wasn’t the last we’d see of Atul though, a day later docked in the Galician port of La Coruna, a group of us joined him on a visit to a Spanish fish and vegetable market, followed by a delicious lunch in a stylish restaurant overlooking the harbour, a meal so good we only just made it back to the ship before it sailed, earning us all a good natured rebuke from the captain over the ship’s tannoy.

Seventeen is another of Azura’s special restaurants, one where old style fine dining rules. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone do crepes suzette at table and the leaping flames made me fear for my black tie outfit – Azura likes to have the occasional formal evening and dressing up like Bond is all part of the fun. Seventeen’s menu and style is knowingly old-school but none the worse for that.

Days in harbours are followed by days at sea and as we crept closer to the Mediterranean, the skies lightened and before long the swimming pools were filling up and the suntan lotion was being sloshed about. There’s plenty to do on board, but a highlight each afternoon is the inclusive afternoon tea as good as any London hotel’s and served in high formal style in the main restaurant.

Bird watching

The good natured staff, mostly from the Far East, probably wondered what it was all about but served us dainty sandwiches and guilty pleasure cakes, with the genuine friendliness and good nature that characterised all the staff on board. After tea there’s only one clever thing to do and that’s either slump out around the adults’ only pool at the stern or doze in front of the giant Seascreen cinema that dominates the larger family deck area.

We were getting pretty used to the sea going lifestyle by now, one that requires you to do nothing more strenuous than walk the long corridors to your cabin, or if you’re feeling guilty about all that eating, to take the stairs – Azura’s lifts serve a mind-boggling 16 decks in all.

We tried the inclusive buffet one lunchtime, fearing the worst, but it was really rather good offering something for all tastes and plenty of it, and as soon as one section threatened to get low, more freshly prepared food was on its way.  Breakfasts too were epic, you could eat a dainty breakfast of fruit juice, croissants and compote, or you could load your plate with a Full English that was dangerously good with proper bacon and sausages, and not those strange frankfurtery things that foreigners seem feel are what Brits want to eat.

Market day

We could only spare three days of this 15 day voyage and so debarked at Gibraltar for a flight home. The plane takes off from a runway that crosses a main road and so the traffic has to stop, and as we recovered from the surreal sight of accelerating past waiting cars, the plane banked over and we could see the Azura, finally docked next to something even larger; the Rock of Gibraltar.

We envied the passengers going the whole way to Monaco, Italy and around the Med; with Eric Lanlard next and then Olly Smith, because the sun was only going to get hotter and the food was only going to get even more deliciously and waistline threateningly tempting.

See Eric Lanlard’s video

P& Cruises will be running a 28 day food and wine themed cruise in November 2013 on the Azura’s sister ship Adonia. Chefs on board will include Eric Lanlard with more to be announced. Prices start from £2,399 per person from Southampton. To find out more visit www.pocruises.com

P&O ship Ventura sails on August 18th for the Meditteranean. The price of £999 per person includes inside cabin, meals and entertainment. To find out more visit www.pocruises.com