Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

It seems that the older we get, the more our holidays revolve around food – much to our waistlines’ detriment! After two fantastic Michelin-listed restaurants in Alsace we decided to use one of our days in Cheltenham to book lunch at Le Champignon Sauvage, a two starred restaurant since 2008. The head chef is David Everitt-Matthias, who has released several cookbooks, although I hadn’t heard of him or the books until we looked up the restaurant.

We walked across town from our glamorous Holiday Inn accommodation and I changed out of my grotty trainers into my heels just around the corner from the restaurant. I’d bought a new handbag to hide them in and Luke had had a haircut and shave that morning – we were looking our best! I only wish I’d asked them to take a photo of us out of our normal jeans and T-shirt ensembles.

As is my habit, I misread the time and we arrived half an hour early, so we had a drink in the pub just down the road and relaxed before arriving at the restaurant right on 12:30.

The restaurant is quite understated but very comfortable.

Double-covered tables, good spacing and comfortable chairs. The staff were very welcoming and I was very happy to be seated near a bright window so I could be one of those awful people who take photos of every course.

The menu had several options but we chose three courses from the £35 set menu.

Before we had ordered we were brought a small plate of savory bites that looked like truffles and biscuits.

We have our order taken and then were presented with a warm celery amuse-bouche.

Delicious! I have never had a celery soup and would never think to order one but this was creamy and refreshing. It also had a pretty mix of spices floating on top, including rose petals, I think.

We both decided to start with the breast of wood pigeon (warning – may contain lead shot).

Neither of us had tried pigeon before and both thought it was delicious. The whole flavour effect reminded me of an autumn forest (if I can dare to be so pretentious about it). Nutty granola, sweet blackberry and mango, green flavour of saxifrage and earthy pigeon with a hint of Christmas in the vegetables and chutney. Possibly my favourite course as it was so evocative! We shared a half bottle of a fairly heavy red that was exceptionally plummy and matched well.

Next up, I chose the Cornish ray (like sole) and Luke chose the beef blade. I had quite a bit of food envy as his dish looked incredible and tasted great. Mine was less powerful but the mushroom flavours were lovely and very well matched by the wine. I’d asked the waitress to choose a wine pairing and it was a Brescou viognier that reminded me strongly of the very unusual white we’d had with our mushroom dish at l’Agneau.

With the savory courses we had a choice of bread. Luke once again made a great choice with a brioche, while I chose a white roll that had an outer consistency of rock and shattered everywhere as I hacked into it. When I was given a second choice I went for the onion brioche. It was the lightest, crispiest bread roll I’ve ever had!

I didn’t need to eat two bread rolls with three courses but I did anyway.

Dessert!

We both chose the lemon verbena and strawberry sorbet. I grow lemon verbena in my garden and have clearly not been using it to its full potential.

Gorgeous! The strawberry sorbet was the prime flavour but the verbena was a delightful citrus note. The combination of textures was a pleasure to experience.

We decided to have a fortified wine with our dessert. I chose the champagne ratafia because the characters in Georgette Heyer books are always drinking it and I’ve never tried it. Luke chose the Pedro Ximenez and once again he made the best choice because it was quite the richest liquor I’ve ever tasted – and we’ve tried quite a few. My ratafia was also lovely with burnt toffee and raisin flavours.

I’d had quite enough by that stage but Luke had a coffee to finish and it came with petit fours.

We left a bit after 3 and I was full to bursting. Even though fancy restaurants do serve small quantities, there are lots of little extras that fill you up. The bill came to £132.60, which is about $260 AUD. It was almost twice as much as our lunches in Alsace and about $200 more than we’d spend on a pub lunch but well worth it for the experience.

A Day In The Cotswolds

Luke signed us up for a ‘Secret Cottage’ tour of the Cotswolds and so we arrived at Oxford station ready to catch a train to meet our group, only to find that, for the second time in a week, someone had been hit by a train and thrown the network into disarray. After hanging about for a bit a delayed train was rerouted and we jumped on and actually got to the meeting point a bit early.

We were met by two black vans and two drivers – ours was a local man named Jeremy who turned out to be an almost inexhaustible font of knowledge with a perfect BBC accent. He was the first (and probably the last) person I will ever hear using ‘one’ as an entirely unselfconscious personal pronoun.

Along with two girls from California who had arrived by the same train, we jumped in and were driven to a tiny village called Chastleton. There we admired a Jacobean manor which, up until quite recently, housed a lady who own 21 cats. Apparently the smell was quite something.

We also had a look in the church next door before heading around the corner to the ‘secret cottage’. The family who organise the tours live in the cottage and provide morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea throughout the day. Before eating we had a tour of the cottage.

Those mushroom shaped objects are ‘straddle stones’ used to elevate storage sheds so mice and rats couldn’t climb up.

It was originally three living spaces with families of up to 15 in each two room space. One room downstairs and one upstairs, reachable by a ladder. In winter the family pig and chickens would live inside too. These days it’s much nicer, with just four people living in the cottage rather than 45!

Morning tea was a delicious selection of biscuits and cakes.

On each excursion out we visited different villages in the Cotswolds and admired many thatched cottages and learned a great deal from Jeremy about the area’s history, geography, language, animals and social goings-on. For example, did you know that Patrick Stewart lives in the Cotswolds and writes many peeved letters to his local council about the shooting range near his property?

We visited Upper and Lower Slaughter – two gorgeous villages with rather dramatic names. However ‘slaugh’ meant ‘marsh’ in an old language, which makes it all less sinister. One of the villages is one of Britain’s ‘doubly thankful’ villages. This means that not one person was killed in either world war. Jeremy explained that the wars had quite devastating effects on some villages as all the young men would want to join the same regiment and so, if that regiment was in serious action, they could lose a generation in one blow.

We learned that while thatched roofs may be beautiful, they are also expensive. They cost about forty thousand pounds to restore (for a medium sized cottage) and a thatch last about 50 years. Some thatchers make signature animals along the roof line – often birds but sometimes cats, dogs and foxes.

Lunch!

The name ‘Cotswolds’ come from ‘cot’ meaning a fenced or enclosed space (from all the sheep pens) and ‘wold’ meaning ‘hills’.

A newly thatched cottage.

We saw a village named Great Tew that had been abandoned last century then revitalised when an heir to the estate had been found. It was a beautiful village filled with gorgeous buildings.

And a very cute pub!

Jeremy had worked as a geologist and as we walked through the village he found a brachiopod fossil!

It doesn’t look like much here but I could tell it was a shell, I promise!

He also had a little wallet of things he’d found while walking around the area, including a Roman coin. It’s the tiny blackened one.

Afternoon tea!

It was a lovely day. Not cheap, at £95, but it didn’t feel at all rushed and we had a very nice group of people to chat to, in fact four others from our group caught the same train back towards Oxford so we chatted the whole way. Lovely!

Cycling around Colmar

Our main goal during our time in Colmar was to do some cycling through some scenic villages and Alsace vineyards as we’d not done any cycling on our previous travels. We also hoped we’d find a few nice restaurants and sample some local produce – wine being top of the list!

We hired two electric bikes from Lulu Cycles in Colmar. We’d originally planned to get normal bikes but a mother and her two daughters were returning some electric bikes when we went in and they strongly recommended them so we decided to give them a go.

Our first day of cycling followed a route that went through the villages of Turckheim, Katzenthal and Ammerschweir and ended up being a loop that was about 20kms.

I had problems on the first day with my bike as the pedals would lock if I tried to use the electric assistance going up hills – which is obviously when I most wanted it. Never having used an electric bike before and with neither of us being mechanically-minded we had no idea what was wrong and how we could fix it. I ended up having to push the bike up hills. Fortunately none of the hills were very big or very steep but it was quite annoying. It turned out, when we took it back, that I had the bike in the wrong gear, so on our second day I knew what to do and it was all fine.

Luke expresses his disapproval for my bike with a dirty look.

The villages around Colmar are all very picturesque. Some more so than others, of course. Each of the ones we visited on the first day was nice and we noticed that every church we came to had a shallow but large metal basket on the roof and in most of them were nesting storks. Andrew tells me that this solves the problem of storks nesting on chimneys and creating fire hazards!

We arrived in Kazenthal in time for lunch and the first restaurant we happened upon had a Michelin plate on the outside – a good sign!

A l’Agneau (don’t ask me to pronounce it) was delightful. They didn’t raise an eyebrow at our sweaty faces or rumpled cycling clothes, despite the fat that everyone else there looked like they had a special occasion happening. We choose a €28 three course lunch that also included an amuse bouche and petit fours. All the food was deliciously fresh and perfectly cooked with lovely presentation. The manner of the staff was also excellent – despite a low level of English they asked where we from and recommended other things to see in the area as well as recommending wines to match each course.

I don’t think I could pick my favourite course, every element was superb. After drinking and eating so much we both had a cappuccino before getting on the bikes to continue our ride. I rarely drink coffee but I have come to understand its value after a heavy meal!

Thankfully most of the remaining ride was downhill and fairly straightforward. One of the downsides of this sort of sight-seeing is having to stop frequently to check the map as we didn’t know the area. It would’ve been good to have some way of attaching my phone to the handlebars to use as a satnav. I also wouldn’t have minded a rear view mirror when we were on the roads so I could see cars and how far Luke was behind me.

Our second day of riding was even more successful. This time I had the gears+electrics worked out and after a brief attempt to use my headphones with google navigation so we wouldn’t have to stop so often, we were on our way, hurtling through corn fields and feeling the wind in our hair. Well.. except when google maps took us into muddy fields and knee-high grass.

Our second day took us through the villages of Herrlisheim-près-Colmar, Eguisheim, Wettolsheim and Wintzenheim. If you’re planning on visiting any villages around Colmar I strongly urge you to leave Eguisheim until last because anywhere you go after that looks a trifle dull.

Eguisheim is even prettier than Colmar and is made up of roads that are concentric circles.

It makes it a very pleasant place to wander around, even if it’s hard to know when to stop. It’s full of places to do wine tastings – we wished we had booked a night there so we could have taken advantage of it all.

We ended up eating at Au Vieux Porche, another Michelin-listed restaurant and almost, almost, as good as A l’Agneux. If anything was missing it was possibly the attentiveness of the service. There was no effort to engage us in any conversation and when we were ready to pay it took twenty minutes for the maitre d to come to our table. Otherwise the food was excellent and it was about the same price – nearly €90 for the two of us to have three courses each, wine pairings and coffee. My first ever espresso – predictably dreadful but with the desired effect of allowing me to continue riding without falling asleep on the bike.

Unfortunately the lighting was quite dim so my photos are a bit rubbish but believe me, it was all delicious! Well, except the coffee and that wasn’t their fault.

Although we hired the bikes for four days we only used them on two due to rain and hot weather and being lazy. We really enjoyed both days despite the few issues and it is definitely a lovely and accessible part of the world for riding if you’re not super experienced.

Here’s a few more photos from Eguisheim to finish off!

Here Comes The Planet 74 – Frascati (2018)

Frascati is a small town about half an hour from Rome which we visited on a winery tour. Apart from having some of the oldest businesses in the country, it also has some beautiful views of Rome in the distance, as well as the vineyards dotting the hills. A lovely spot!

Read Amanda’s entry on our Frascati wine tour here.

Paris: Wine Tasting at Ô Chateau.

While doing our food tour in Nice we met Sheandra, a lawyer from Atlanta in the US who was great fun and we all got along like the proverbial chateau flambé. We ended up going out for a few glasses of wine after the food tour and then deciding to meet up again in Paris, this time for a Rick Steves-recommended wine tasting lunch at Ô Chateau.

We all arrived a little early and caught up on what we’d done since we’d last seen each other then went downstairs into the stylish cellar where the tasting would take place.

Our instructor for the day was Gerald, a man with excellent English and even better wine knowledge. His presentation not only covered how to taste wine and how to discuss it, but also the history and geography of French wine. If you are an aspiring connoisseur or just interested in wine I’d hugely recommended it. If you already know a lot about wine they have an experts course too.

Some of the things I learned were:

1. How the sediment is removed from champagne bottles without the gas being lost. The neck of the bottle (where the sediment had settled) is frozen, then the plug of ice removed before the bottle is resealed.

2. What ‘brut’ refers to. I’ve always wondered yet never bothered to look and it turns out that it means a minimum of sugar is added to flavour the champagne and sometimes none. So when a champagne is ‘brut’ it means that it is dry. Champagne that is ‘extra brut’ is in fact more sweet because extra sugar is added.

3. When a champagne is labeled ‘Blanc de blanc’ it means ‘white of whites’ which means only Chardonnay grapes have been used. The other two grapes used to make champagne are red – Although champagne is never red because the skins are discarded.

4. NVB stands for Non Vintage Brut. This means that grapes from multiple seasons have been mixed to provide a more standard flavour.

5. Champagne glasses are tall with narrow stems because until modern methods were involved, the yeast sediment used to settle in the bottom of the stem.

6. To see if a red wine is aged you can tilt the glass over a white background and note that the pinker the tint of the wine the younger it is and the redder, or browner the colour the more it has aged.

Of course we learned a great deal more but, thanks to drinking about 8 glasses of wine, I seem to have forgotten most of it. C’est la vie!

I found that we knew quite a bit about wine terminology and a bit about production. Where we always fall down is in the actual tasting, although Gerald explained so well and gave us a few hints and so we did pick some of the flavours. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we guessed successfully.

The cheeses were paired nicely and each came from the same region as the wine.

Number three was my favourite pairing and the Sancerre (a Sauvignon Blanc) was my favourite wine, but I was tickled to be trying a Chateauneuf du Pape. Partially because I had just read about there being a pope who chose Avignon as his capital (traveling around Europe is like piecing together an endless historical puzzle) but mainly because it is mentioned in a Beastie Boys song and every time I read it I start singing Body Movin’ to myself.

Anyhoo, we were properly fuzzy when we left and we said goodbye to Sheandra before heading to the Musee d’Orsay.

We had a quick look at some very elegant Art Nouveau furniture and then their impressive collection of Van Gogh works. Van Gogh is always amazing, but seeing his work surrounded by other artists of the period really impresses on you how special he was. So vibrant and expressive. I took a photo of this one for Jess, as it featured in one of my favourite Dr Who episodes.

Last night (a week later) Luke and I had a long discussion about art we liked since we’ve seen so much lately. We both agreed that we thought the very best art (fine or otherwise) was the kind that appealed to many people on many levels. Work that could be enjoyed or be controversial or in some way stimulating for everyone, whether you were trained to appreciate it or not, but which held layers of meaning so that the more you knew the more there was to appreciate. I think this is why I find some modern art so interesting – the more technically skilled but also provocative it is, the better I like it.

I’d be interested in what other people think about so leave a comment if you have thoughts!

Last Day In Paris

On our last day we didn’t do much at all. It was the hottest day of our stay and also a Sunday, which meant that half the shops weren’t open. I decided the first thing we had to do was eat chocolate eclairs. I hadn’t had one in years so we went to three different bakeries and tried one from each.

They might look identical but they were (slightly) different. All were excellent!

Then we spent half the day being real locals – we sat in a cafe eating french food and drinking. Aperol Spritz for me and beer for Luke.

Lovely! Well, except for the wasps. Wasps everywhere in Europe right now! Everywhere we’ve been the pleasure of sitting outside and inhaling other people’s cigarette smoke has been mitigated by wasps trying to get into our drinks and food.

After this exceptionally lazy day we packed our bags, ready to head for Colmar via Strasbourg.

A few last examples of Paris street art. For those who like this sort of thing I have to note that stencils seem to be hugely popular here. Maybe they’re quicker to put up?