Les Cévennes – The French Wilderness

I have recently received a number of questions about “the list”. For those of you who regularly eat with Phil and me or have been reading my travel emails for years, you know there is a list of ingredients that Phil would just assume avoid. Some of our friends actually consult the list when we are coming to dinner, others (my preference) just ignore it and make what ever the heck they want to make. Phil is lucky to have such good friends.

Keep in mind that the list isn’t all that long, and I must admit that he has been getting better lately. Off the top of my head here are some of the current list items and their severity rating:

  • Cloves – avoid at all costs
  • Fennel – seeds as in Italian sausage may be okay if not overpowering – the vegetable is a no-no
  • Cucumbers – he picks them out of sushi – need I say more?
  • Cilantro – I’ll give him a pass on this one – I think he may be allergic to it; it tastes like soap to him
  • Ginger – pickled is out of the question, powdered in moderation is okay
  • Vinegar – mild vinegars like Rice Wine Vinegar are okay – strong vinegars like red wine will bring him to his knees – it’s best if he can avoid smelling them – that’s what he really hates
  • Beets – he thinks they taste like dirt – he won’t even try Golden Beets – which absolutely do not taste like dirt
  • Butter – when I first met Phil the only thing he could put butter on was good bread, he has really developed a pallet for fine butter. In fact he is looking forward to our time in Brittany – the butter there is outstanding. I know you are thinking butter? That’s an odd thing to not like – it had something to do with making butter in kindergarten and it going bad. My kindergarten class did the same thing and I think back on it fondly.

Just Getting There is An Adventure

We were up early on our last day in Lot-et-Garonne. I did my final run without Elouk as it was raining and when he comes with me we need to run in the orchards. That’s hard enough without the slick rained upon grassy hills. He seemed so sad that I was leaving without him. At dinner the night before, Pierre assured us we would absolutely adore “Les Cévennes” (said “Lay Seven – accent on the “ven”). We discussed with him our proposed route and he completely changed it. We had planned to route through Mende and then Saint-Étienne-Vallée-Française, Pierre assured us that going through Toulouse was the way to go. While it was longer in mileage it would be shorter in duration, more highways and as the weather report was for heavy downpours we wanted to just get there.

How we originally planned to go

 

 

 

 

 

 

How we went

We also realized that we made a routing mistake. Every single French person that we discussed our drive from Monteton to Les Cévennes asked us if we had or would be visiting Carcassonne, a hilltop town in southern France’s Languedoc area, it is famous for its medieval citadel. It’s now on a different list for a future adventure.

How we should have gone

We were packed and said our goodbyes by ten. We think this will be our longest drive and with the rain, we are certain it won’t be fun.

We made it all the way to Saint-Étienne-Vallée-Française and that’s where Angelique’s directions picked up. She assured us that no GPS would find their place. Here’s an excerpt of the directions:

Go through the small village St Etienne Vallée fr, just after the village, you will see the village name crossed and going down a little further you will see a sign Serres/ Droubies and a small bridge on your right, cross the bridge and go up the curvy road all the way to the top. (5-6km) There you will see a rubbish bin and two signs left Serres / Les Abrits and right Droubies, take the left direction Serres. Be attentive if you arrive at night as these signs are small and the road tends to go more smoothly towards Droubies. After a km you will see some signs with names on the left – Pierre de la Vieille /Longonge/ Soliers L’or du Peuch etc (if nature hasn’t already grown over them!!!) and one on the right – Le Pereyret,  continue on straight!! …… Please do not arrive at night as we live in a forest and you WILL get lost. Please do not follow your gps instead of my directions at the very end as the gps does not yet read our road, and will lead you on a wild boar chase!

.We were actually doing okay until we got to the small bridge on our right, cross the bridge and go up the curvy road all the way to the top. First problem, there was a choice we could go sort of straight (towards the right) or curve around to the left. We choose the sort of straight way. Minutes from the bridge, there was a sign on the road that I didn’t understand. It looked like there might be a problem with the road further up. We put it in the translator app  and the translator didn’t understand it either. I got out of the car and walked a bit up the road and it looked okay. I came back and reported to Phil that I thought we should continue on. He put the car in gear, we headed up this one lane (for both directions) road and within 3 minutes a car was coming down the road. She made Phil back up. He did an amazing job – it was curvy, we were on a hill and he was driving an unfamiliar car backwards. The back up camera and sensors helped as on one side of the road there was a steep drop and on the other side a wall of rock. It took a number of tries but we got back down to a flat area and the woman was able to pass and we started up the hill again. It felt like hours until we got to what we thought was Angelique and Dominique’s road.

Another km further on you will pass a reservoir on the right and then a little further you will see a letterbox on the left (all alone!!! with no name ) then, just after the corner, a big stone in the ground on the left, with a wooden barrier – this is the entrance to our property.

Phil was fried and we just hoped that the road we turned down really was the entrance to their property. It had been raining so the road was slick, it’s not paved and it was very curvy.

We finally see a cluster of buildings and a man we don’t recognize walking a pony. It’s been 10 years, but we’re pretty certain we’d recognize Dominique. This gentleman doesn’t speak any English but we ask for Angelique and he motions to us that we are in the right place. We park the car and Angelique comes running out.

But Boy Was the Journey Worth It

She looks amazing and the property is spectacular. After the pleasantries, she shows us to our room and we are simply blown away. They bought the property (45 hectacres which is 111 acres) and a bunch of ruins. Many of the ruins have been transformed to their home, guest accommodations and a stable for the horse and pony. They are also in the process of renovating the windmill into a guest accommodation…and they have plans to do more.

One of the many areas to enjoy a meal, a drink, whatever
Pathway in
Surprised to see the new pony, Voltaire, grazing right outside our door
View of the property from one of the terraces

They did much of the work themselves. Only calling in the professionals for things like roofing and major infrastructure work – such as running the electrical lines but not putting lighting in the guest rooms (that they did themselves). They’ve been working their French and Australian derrieres off and it shows.

We have the largest guest room. A huge bedroom with sitting and dining area and a great big bathroom attached. We share a kitchen with another guest room. There is also another room in a separate building that has it’s own kitchen and deck. There are decks throughout the property to enjoy the views, the outdoors and the peacefulness of the property.

I’m not sure the pictures do justice to just how lovely it is.

Our room – note the pellet stove – aaahhhh!
The perfect room for a rainy day
Beautifully decorated with a mix of Angelique’s paintings and Dominique’s love of India

Gîte vs. Chambre d’Hôtes

Phil had worked out this part of our trip with Angelique. Keep in mind we had never stayed in a true “gîte” before our stay in Laroque this trip. And it is important to remember that the organization we have come to trust for rating Chambre d’Hôtes (Bed and Breakfasts) is called Gîtes de France. Imagine his confusion when we realized that this was NOT a Chambre d’Hôtes but a Gîte with a twist. Angelique does make dinner (Table d’Hôtes) available to her guests but not breakfast or lunch. Most people bring food up with them, cook their meals in the kitchens attached to their rooms and maybe book a dinner or two with Angelique and Dominique. We had let Angelique know that we would have dinner with them all five nights, but we were in a bit of a bind for breakfast and lunch. Phil didn’t want to touch the car until it was our time to leave for Burgundy, we were after all, what felt like a million miles from any store, and we had no food except for some dried pasta and mustard. Angelique to the rescue, she put together a basket of organic groceries for us only charging us what she had paid for them.   And she provided us with homemade bread and/or pastries in the morning. We were set.

with bread, cheese and pate in the frig we were set

Both the other rooms were booked. One of the other couples, Johanna and Tibor, from Germany now living in Paris would be joining us for dinner our first night. Valerie and Gerard would join us the second night and the other 3 nights it would just be Angelique, Dominique, Phil and me for dinner.

We think we met Angelique in 2002 in an art gallery on the Ile St.-Louis in Paris. Her exhibition had been running for a few weeks and there were only a few painting that weren’t sold. We immediately fell in love with her work and one of the remaining available paintings, Les Mauvais Garçons.

Our Very First Angelique Painting – Les Mauvais Garcons

Back then we were buying one piece of art every year for our wedding anniversary; the house had a lot of wall space. It was September and we hadn’t made that year’s purchase until our trip to Paris. We love Paris and we love Angelique’s work. There are a number of her pieces in our home. She has decorated the Gîte with her paintings. It was great fun to see some of the paintings that we considered buying in the past. They make me long for more wall space. At some point we met Dominque, who is a philosopher, and the four of us just hit it off. These are exceptionally kind people who have an inner peace about them that is just amazing. We would see them anytime we were all in Paris – sometimes at the gallery, or out for dinner or to their home for an evening. It had been at least 10 years since the last time we saw them. But we kept in touch. The internet is a wonderful thing.

Angelique and the new pony (for them) Voltaire
Dominique and Angelique putting the final touches on dinner

What A Timely Rainy Day!

Our first full day in Les Cévennes was perfect. It was cold and pouring all day. I took the day off from running. We had the pellet stove going all day. The room was warm and cozy. Phil played the guitar, I wrote, I may even have knit a row or two. It was absolutely wonderful. We had a picnic lunch, watched some downloaded Netflix in the room and just relaxed.

 

Daily Activities in Les Cévennes – Running or Guitar Playing, Hiking, Eating, Drinking and Having a Great Time With Old Friends

That pretty much sums it up. Remote is a good description of the area. The topography is mountainous. We would walk for hours on the trails and not see another person. We would depart for our hikes right from the Gîte. No driving required. We’d pack a lunch from our provisions or we’d split the hiking into a morning session and an afternoon session and come back to the gîte for a bite to eat.   In fact one day we came back around two and found a care package from Johanna and Tibor. They decided to leave a day early and try to catch the sun in Marseille. They left food for us as they knew our Gîte vs. Chambre d’Hotes confusion. We’d get lost hiking and the GPS would help us out or we’d just keep going until we recognized something/anything.

The view from our room
A great surprise after a morning of hiking

The internet was a bit of a challenge, we had to position ourselves in the right spots to have connectivity. Uploading the blog was a bit of a challenge.   We also had to hang out the window to get service on the French phone; fortunately we weren’t talking with anyone. It was just perfect. Exactly the kind of relaxing time we needed. The only problem, Phil is continuing to have problems with his bursar sac which restricts the amount of hiking he can do – and he’s over doing it for sure.

Simply beautiful
I love to hike
Overcoming all obstacles

We hiked through a forest that Phil thought looked like something out of Harry Potter. We ate lunch at what felt like the top of the world. We climbed up, we cautiously climbed down. Thank goodness we had our hiking sticks with us. We were prohibited from taking the path back to the gite one day. A crotchety old man forced us to walk around the area he had cordoned off for sheep, it was crazy that we did it. There was practically no path, we had to walk through clumps of trees, thorns tore at our clothes and I lost the handle to one of my hiking sticks. We had photographed part of the incident and Angelique was nuts, “He can’t do that, Dominique you need to go tell him they can’t do that” I’m certain the neighbor got a nice but firm talking to after we left.

A scene out of Harry Potter?
Love the trees
We came upon a blocked path
Still smiling because we haven’t dealt with the thorns yet

Restaurant Scene: Les Cévennes, France

Well for us there was only one game in town – Le Pereyrol otherwise knows as Angelique and Dominique’s Gîte. I didn’t take a lot of photos during the meals, especially the first two nights where there were others dining with us. As they are Angelique and Dominique’s customers I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.

Each meal started with an aperitif, usually a sparkling white. We brought a white from Cadillac that Dominique planned to open later in the week. Angelique likes to serve food and use ingredients from the region. She is also health conscious; everything is “Bio” or organic. When she can she gathers the ingredients from the forest. Many of this dishes we had contained either chestnuts or chestnut flour (not on the list). Angelique battles the wildlife in the forest for the chestnuts once they start falling. She admits the animals have a keen sense of knowing which chestnuts are best. Dries them under the wood burning stove and then either uses the nuts or grinds them into flour. She told me it takes 1 hour to prepare 50 chestnuts (getting them out of their shell) for grinding. People ask her all the time if they can buy chestnut flour from her. She won’t sell it but she will give them 50 chestnuts and show them how to prepare them, and if they do that they can have the flour for free. No one has taken her up on that offer. She had hoped with all the rain that we’d be able to go out an look for cèpes. But sadly it never warmed up for them to spring up in the forest.

A little bite with our aperitifs
Chestnuts drying under a fire

We ate in the dining room when there were others dining with us. The first night’s appetizers were grilled wild board sausage and mushroom as well as vegetable spring rolls with a sweet/spicy dipping sauce. Both were outstanding. The boar was NOT gamey at all.   Loved the sausage and we were happy to see the vegetables. There was cilantro (list) in the spring rolls but I don’t think he noticed.

Angelique offers her guests a variety of levels of dinners to choose from. Johanna and Tibor had asked for the luxury version, we were along for the ride. The main course was a sort of seafood paella, Indian Style. It was different from anything I’ve ever had. The seafood was very well cooked. I have no pictures, but there were mussels, calamari, prawns, and three kinds of fish – Salmon, Loup de Mer and Cabillau. The sauce was formed from the tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant cooking down with a little cream. The sauce actually looked as if it was tomato based. Angelique had some challenges with the short grain rice, it never seemed to get done. She had cooked it for hours and it was crunchy. She was embarrassed. So you’re thinking to yourself, what makes this Indian paella? Well it was the spices and Angelique has a heavy hand with the spices. At a minimum there was clove, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and coriander. The item that holds the number 1 position on the list, “cloves” was in there so was ginger and for spice purists coriander (cilantro in Spanish) but dried coriander really isn’t on the list. I was impressed, he ate his dinner, enjoyed the seafood and did his best to avoid getting any extra sauce.

After the main course we were treated to a green salad and a selection of cheese from the region. I was about to burst, the main course was quite filling, but the salad was quite delicious and what can I say? No to cheese in France, that would be very difficult.

Dessert was delicious, light and enormous. It was a Berry Pavolva. Pavolva is a meringue based (egg whites and chestnut flour) dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavolva. It was developed for her because she wanted dessert but had to watch her calorie intake. It is typically topped with fruit (frozen berries from the region) and whipped cream. Tibor and Johanna took the leftovers for breakfast the next morning it was so good.

The next dinner was almost vegetarian. Valerie and Gerard are vegetarians. Angelique had been a vegetarian at one point in her life and Dominique, Phil and I are omnivores.

The sparkling wine tonight was served with fried cauliflower and broccoli along with Indian flat bread and two dipping sauces. One was made with the vegetable fennel (on the list) and the second was made with spicy peppers. Both were terrific. Phil ate and liked both of them.

There’s fennel and cilantro hiding in there

Dinner was mostly vegetarian and it was delicious. Angelique made a stew of tomatoes, eggplant and lentils. I think there was some fennel in there too. It was delicious, deeply roasted in her wood burning oven. She also made stuffed squash blossoms that were great! For the four of us she made some sticky, gooey, and just a touch sweet chicken legs. They were flavorful and moist. Oh, and the starch for the day was spiced rice and while there may have been a number of spices in the rice, the only one Phil could taste was the clove (#1 on the list).   What saved Phil tonight was the hot peppers that Angelique served on the side; he was able to partially conceal the clove taste with the heat.

Mostly vegetarian. Cloves hiding in the rice

The salad was a beet (on the list) and tomato salad topped with a balsamic vinaigrette (on the list). It was quite good, there was a healthy amount of Dijon mustard in the salad making it a bit spicy.

Dessert was great, a goat cheese cake with a chestnut crust topped with frozen gooseberries (‘groseilles”) on top. The cake was light, the cheese tangy, the crust not to sweet but rich and the berries were cold and tart. It was a great dessert. Valerie and Gerard took the left overs for breakfast this time.

Frozen Gooseberries on Top – Delicious!

Angelique and Dominique’s living space is simply beautiful. They did an amazing job transforming the ruins into a warm and inviting home. The living room/dinning room walls are lined with bookcases and many first edition and old books.  The kitchen is large with two stoves: one wood burning and one electric with a convection oven. There’s a huge island in the kitchen. On the nights that it was just the four of us for dinner we ate in the kitchen – informal and relaxing

Books are important to Dominique.
Sitting at the island made for a nice casual dinner

Angelique asked us what we wanted for dinner each of the subsequent nights. We told her we didn’t want her to work as hard as she had been on dinners. We wanted to ensure they’d want us to come back. Somehow we also let her know to leave the cloves out of things going forward. She felt bad; Phil just laughed it off. That night we opened the Cadillac wine from Bordeaux, Angelique served pate de foie gras on homemade chestnut crackers. It paired perfectly with the wine. We sat at the island and had duck breast with roasted potatoes. She made roasted vegetables again that were just delicious.   It was a simple, it was a perfect dinner. We had a little cheese and some salad after the duck. Angelique hit a home run by making chocolate mousse for dessert.

.The next night we had roasted chicken, carrots, and eggplant in a semi-sweet sauce with chestnuts. I originally thought the chestnuts were large beans, but one bite and I knew that rich chestnut flavor. The skin on the chicken was crispy. The meat moist, even the white meat. Dessert that night was creamy with berries and chocolate. We ate half of it and told Angelique to just use it tomorrow night. She was horrified, she would make something else.

The chestnuts were a real surprise

Our last night was just spectacular. We had roasted wild boar. The same boar that was used for the sausages our first night. As it turns out, the boar was tearing up the neighborhood. At some point, one of the neighbors went hunting (this boar in particular) and was successful. Angelique marinated the boar overnight in two bottles of red wine from the area. She then cooked it for hours in two more bottles of red wine from the region. The meat was tasty, beef like. Not a hint of gaminess. Dominique told us that people who return to the Gite often specifically ask Angelique to make wild boar because of how accomplished she is at it. The bones were interesting – Vegans/Vegetarians if you’re still reading, STOP. They were thinner than I expected and very sharp and severe. I had only had wild boar in ragu before this trip and I love that. To accompany the boar, she made very caramelized onions. They were so sweet and complimented the meat.   This was a great new culinary experience. Angelique knew we were concerned about not getting any vegetables after we left her. She made enough vegetables to feed an army including roasted thinly sliced potatoes and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, egg plant, and zucchini.   She also made sautéed spinach, broccoli and cauliflower and white asparagus. It was a vegetable bonanza!

Roasted wild boar in red wine sauce

Dessert was great again tonight and she sort of did what we asked her. She mad a light semifreddo  using the leftovers from the prior night in the center and coconut milk for the outside. It was light, not too sweet, cold and delicious.

Yum – light and not too sweet semifreddo

Fortunately we had been doing a lot of hiking or we would have gained 10 pounds in 5 days. We’d like to come back to Les Cévennes and stay with Angelique and Dominique again. The years between our last visit and this one just melted away. They are very special people. Next time, we will take the train to Nîmes and they will pick us up. We will go grocery shopping before heading up to the gîte. This is a special place for getting away from it all.

We met on my run one morning
When you want to get away from it all Le Pereyrol is for you

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