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France’s ‘Catalan’ corner

June 3, 2012 2 comments

One of the gems of ‘French Catalunya’ – Collioure.

Before visiting this little corner of France bordering Spain, Pays Catalans, I was unaware that the Catalan influence had spilled over to France. In fact, due to the history of this picturesque region, the Catalan connection in the French Roussillon province goes back centuries.

However, while the Spanish Catalans still retain a strong identity, the French Catalans have been more integrated into French culture and society – only around 100,000 Catalans still live in Pays Catalans and speak their own dialect; the rest speak French.

Driving down towards the Pyrenees, past Montpelllier, we finally see the sea. But, it’s not quite the picture of the Mediterranean that you imagine. Instead, there is a series of estuaries on one side of this flat, swampy looking stretch of land. However, there’s hope – in the distance, the majestic Pyrenees loom. Heading towards Canet, the landscape and uninspiring concrete holiday homes are not very appealing. There are heaps of activities from wine tasting to horse riding to kite surfing and kayaking, but at a first glance it just looks boring.

Slightly disappointed, we arrive in Canet-Plage which is where we’re going to base ourselves for the next few days. Canet has a long sandy beach but the town itself is nothing special, with its characterless cement-lined façade, unappetizing takeaway restaurants and lack of soul. However, for a family holiday it is probably an excellent choice – for its swimming-friendly beach with the mountains in the background and variety of activities.

Canet-Plage is a great base from which to explore neighboring gems – the stunning old towns of Collioure and Carcassonne, and you can also venture across the Pyreneesto the Spanish side to Costa Brava to explore places like Salvador Dali’s holiday favorite of Cadaqués.

For romantics and creative spirits alike
Collioure (pronounced Caulio) is a small town just 30 minutes drive from Canet Plage. With just a small text about it in our guidebook, we thought it would be a nice place to visit and enjoy some fresh fish French Catalan-style.

Well, you can’t help but fall in love with Collioure. It’s a beautiful town which became famous as a center for artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in the early 20th century, inspired by its small, winding medieval streets, imposing castle, Mediterranean-style bay and small sandy coves. There’s also a 14th-century windmill. At night time, it is beautifully lit up and very romantic.

Collioure is also famous for its anchovies which are often considered the best in the world. Plenty of cozy restaurants and bars line its waterfront but it has still retained its intimate charm. However, in the peak summer times, the number of tourists can be a bit overwhelming.

When in Collioure, enjoy the fresh seafood which is cooked up Catalan-style and a drink on the waterfront with the gentle sound of the sea and to admire the beautifully lit up castle and streets. We dined at Copacabana which was excellent, especially the fresh flame-grilled shrimps and crème catalane – a local variation of crème brulee. However, the Catalans traditionally carmelize it with a special iron or under an iron broiler, rather than with a flame.

Collioure was taken by the French in 1642 and, due to its strategic location, its fortifications were strengthened by military engineer Vauban. In 1793 the Spanish besieged the town and the French won it back again a year later.

Shellfish paradise at Bouzigues

Moules farcies in Bouzigues, one of the shellfish ‘capitals’ of France.


Lunch at Bouzigues is a must when in this area. A small pretty fishing village, near Sete, one of Southern France’s largest fishing ports, Bouzigues is famous for its shellfish. Around 500 meters from the waterfront restaurants, you can see the wooden stilts where they cultivate the oysters, lingoustines and mussels etc.

We try the bouillabaisse – a hearty concoction of fish, mussels, shrimps and a massive langoustine, served with toasted bread, garlic butter and gratinated cheese. I choose mussels – which I have been dreaming of for the past two days but, unfortunately, end up ordering moules farcies (stuffed mussels) by mistake. They were delicious but I’m still wondering how they managed to squeeze such a massive chunk of sausage into such a tiny mussel.

Viva la Espana

Crossing over the border between France and Spain, even though we’re still in the “Catalan” region, it’s very quiet on the Spanish side – villages lie deserted, new apartment and holiday home buildings lie unfinished, restaurants are closed and the feeling of recession looms everywhere. However, the well maintained and highly comfortable camping grounds along the Costa Brava are full with, mainly, German and Dutch caravans and tents.

The Costa Brava is everything that you expect from the postcards …. long, never-ending stretches of sandy beaches, turquoise-blue Mediterranean waters, colorful splashes of windsurfers and kite-surfers and abundant hotel resorts, holiday homes, apartment blocks and camping grounds. However, it also has plenty of cultural sites and beautiful spots off the beaten track.

Cadaqués – Dali’s holiday hangout

The white-washed village of Cadaqués on the Costa Brava, one of Salvador Dali’s favorite holiday spots.

On the horizon we spot the white-washed buildings of Cadaqués with its red roofs and azure-blue shutters. At a first glance, it reminds us of a village in the Greek islands.

Cadaqués has long been a haunt of artists, sculptors and writers including Salvador Dali who spent much of his childhood here and kept a summer home here which is still open to the public today; it’s at Port Lligat, a bay next to the town.

In the early 20th century many people from Cadaqués left the sleepy fishing village to emigrate toCuba; they later returned after making their fortune and built large ornate villas in Cadaqués.

This town, even though just two hours from Barcelona and close to the French border, seems completely cut off from the outside world, partly due to its location in the hidden depths of the mountains on one side, and the rolling waves of the Mediterranean on the other.

Where to stay: Le Mas de la Plage et des Pins (Canet-Plage); Les Mouettes (Collioure); Perafita Hotel (Cadaqués); camping on the Costa Brava: Las Palmeras or Nautic Almata.

Don’t miss: Fresh shellfish at Bouzigues; a cortado at a sleepy café in Cadaqués; Salvador Dali’s house near Cadaqués; shopping for handicrafts in Collioure; the medieval town of Carcassonne.

Seychellois cuisine: one of the world’s best kept secrets

Maria Rock Café on Mahé: cook your own fish and seafood on a hot plate.

I had little to no expectations of Seychellois cuisine before my trip, merely looking forward to fresh fish and giant shrimps. I wasn’t disappointed. The Seychellois Creole cuisine is inspired by African, Chinese, Indian, English, French and Indian influences. Ingredients like ginger, coriander, pepper, lemongrass and fresh herbs play a key role.

While the food is not as hot or spicy as Asian cuisine, one of the most popular meals is curry which is usually made with fresh coconut cream, and served with rice.

Seychellois chefs use elements borrowed from their neighbors and have adapted them to conjure up their own local dishes. This is aided by the vast availability and quality of local fruit and vegetables.

You’re spoilt for fish in the Seychelles … red snapper is a firm favorite.

Fish is, by far, the most popular dish on most menus, which is not surprising considering the vast variety of fish in the huge oceanic territory belonging to this island nation.

Some of the more exotic and unusual dishes we discovered on menus were red snapper in vanilla sauce served with cinnamon-flavored rice (Le Rendez Vous) fruitbat stew (Anse Soleil Café)and tuna & tequila (Anchor Café).

During our eight-day stay in the Seychelles, we tried a wide selection of local restaurants and restaurants located in hotels. The best food, value-for-money and atmosphere was, without a doubt, in the non-hotel based restaurants, with the exception of the Indian Ocean Lodge in Praslin where both lunch and dinner were excellent.

Some personal favorites:

Maria’s Rock Café, Baie Lazare, Mahé: tucked away on a sleepy road, this cave-like bar and restaurant is owned by Maria, the Seychellois spouse of Italian sculptor Antonio Filippin who owns the studio next door. What makes it special is that you can cook your giant shrimps or red snapper yourself on garlic butter on a hot iron plate which is placed on your table. Simple, delicious and fun.

Le Rendez Vous, Victoria, Mahé: in the heart of the Seychelles’ capital, this is the perfect spot for people watching and gives you a bird’s eye view of local Seychellois life on the streets below.

Anse Soleil Café, Mahé: If you want to try a local delicacy, fruitbat – either grilled or in a stew.

Chez Batistas, Mahé : great lunch buffet on Sundays; and fantastic views over Takamaka Bay.

Simple, fresh and exotic … the local Parrot fish.

News Café: perfect breakfast or lunch spot with a selection of local newspapers. And good coffee – choose from Illy or Lavazza. Interestingly, they both have a different price!

Anchor Café, Mahé: run by a super-friendly Seychellois lady and her American-born husband, their speciality is delicious blackened fish (catch of the day – we had jobfish – spiced with whatever herbs they have in the kitchen and a carefully guarded secret) or their more original tuna steak with tequila sauce.

Marie-Antoinette, Victoria, Mahé: set in a splendid old plantation house, the walls are covered in history and memoralia. And don’t forget to say ‘hello’ to the resident giant tortoises in the pen outside. This is the perfect spot to end your holiday in the Seychelles, before boarding your flight home.

And the not-so-special:

Sea Horse, Constance Lémuria Resort, Praslin: the chef may have a Michelin star under his belt and the management may claim to offer a fusion of local and European cuisine, but the influence here is heavily European, mainly French. If you’re coming from Europe, and are looking forward to Indian Ocean cuisine, you won’t be impressed to see foie de gras, duck, Angus beef and other French delicacies on the menu. It may be interesting if you are sick off the local Creole cuisine or if you are the kind of person who likes to stick to what you usually eat, and know, from back home. And, the French sommelier, definitely wasn’t impressed, or friendly, when I asked for the South African instead of the French wine.

Take-away at Praslin airport, Praslin: The locals tend to get a takeaway and enjoy it at home or on the beach. It’s cheap, quick and tasty. Unfortunately, I opted for a fish curry here not realizing it was dried and salted fish which is then placed into the curry; I ended up with a mouthful of fish bones and salt. But, for EUR 4, I guess I can’t complain!

Pirates Arms, Mahé: With rumors abounding amongst the local fishermen about some modern-day Somali pirates venturing into the Seychelles outer territory, and about Madagascar-based pirates landing in the Seychelles centuries ago, we were eager to check out this place. Disappointingly, the closest we got to seeing pirates were two elderly Rastafarians propped up at the bar. Good spot to enjoy a drink but it’s more like an American-style diner than a restaurant or café.

Grann Kaz restaurant on Silhouette Island: authentic Creole food in an old plantation house. Check out their homemade vanilla-flavored rum!

More than just rabbits and rocks

April 28, 2010 2 comments

Seafood Towers, local Maltese wines, restaurants carved into rocks, English breakfasts and steaks for 60 Euros – just some of my gourmet adventures on a recent trip to Malta, renowned for its rabbit stews, rocky cliffs and British colonial history.

Well, during a recent vacation in Malta, aside from enjoying an English breakfast or two, some touristy pasta and pizza joints, I found some cozy local restaurants in Malta and enjoyed some great meals with first-class service.

Secluded and romantic

View of the Lupanara wine bistro

The first is a real hidden gem – and when I say hidden, I mean hidden as it’s literally carved into a wall of rock without any sign of a name or menu hanging outside. The only giveaway is a few scattered tables and lounge seats perched on the quayside. To find it, you pass the Birgu waterfront’s marina on the left hand side and the Vittoriosa casino on the right hand side before you reach what seems to be a dead (and dimly lit) end of the street. But venture around the corner and walk around the water’s edge to the other side and you’ll discover the Lupanara (www.lupanarabistro.com) wine bistro. I liked it so much that I’ve been back several times – with friends for a cheese platter and bottle of wine and once for a romantic dinner with my fiancé.

The cuisine at Lupanara is a mix of everything from seafood dishes to cheese and ham platters – modern European food with a local flair – and with a great selection of local and international wines. It’s a classy but understated place where you hear nothing but the quiet murmur of voices around you and the occasional lapping of water, with the rocks illuminated as a backdrop behind you. Prices are very fair – a bottle of wine, two coffees and two main courses will set you back just EUR 46.

Steaks and seafood towers
If you’re after a decent steak or an assortment of seafood, check out the newly opened Grill 3301  at the Corinthia Beach Resort in St. George’s Bay. There’s a pretty nice view over St. George’s Bay and the Dragonara Casino – regardless of whether you are a sun-starved tourist who wants to sit on the rooftop to soak up al-fresco dining or if, like the locals, you prefer to sit indoors in air-conditioning (which might leave you stepping outdoors to warm up!!). No matter where you sit, you’re guaranteed a view!  

Tucking in to the Seafood Tower at Grill 3301

And then there’s Grill 3301’s house speciality, the Seafood Tower – a three tiered mountain of seafood where you’ll have to get off your chair to see what’s on the top. On the bottom there are clams, langoustines, mussels; on the second layer you’ll find shrimps, swordfish carpaccio, octopus and on the top lobsters. It’s perfect as a shared starter or main course and with some champagne. 

Then comes the tough decision of choosing a main course; unless you are like one member of our group who only eats chicken, then your choice is narrowed to the corn-fed chicken. But if you have your eye on a steak, it’ll take a while to decide if you want rib-eye Kobe beef, a fillet of grass-fed Aberdeen Angus, or, what I opted for – the porterhouse 600g Charolais steak. If you think selecting your meat is the toughest choice, then you have to choose between Madagascar peppercorn, organic mustard or Stilton cream sauces which come served in a cute little saucepan with a miniature soup ladle. If you’re neither a steak, seafood nor chicken lover, then there’s plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. As a crème brulée fanatic, I savoured every mouthful of my dessert, finishing up with a coffee and Baileys.

Dinner here can be pricey – a steak can set you back anything between EUR 19 and 60 – but in today’s recession-hit climate, Grill 3301 has been smart enough to also cater for those on a smaller budget. The pasta and risotto dishes start from EUR 8.50; and there are set menus including starter, main course, desert and coffee for around EUR 30 per person all in. This means it pretty much covers everything from a business dinner to a romantic meal to a group get-together … and with impeccable service.  

When in Malta, do as the locals do
If you head further south in Malta, La Favorita in Marsaskala offers great seafood in a relaxed unpretentious atmosphere and is popular with locals. Other locals recommend the waterfront seafood restaurants in Malta’s main fishing village, Marsaxlokk.

So, after a great vacation, my conclusion is that if you are ever in Malta, don’t be put off on your first day by the McDonalds and pizza signs and “so so” pasta dishes in the touristic haunts. Like anywhere, there are plenty of great restaurants around, just be a bit adventurous and get off the beaten tourist track. If you don’t have any locals to ask for advice, check out the survey-based guide called The Definitive(ly) Good Guide to Restaurants in Malta & Gozo which lists the top 150 survey based restaurants in Malta & Gozo.  

 

 

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