The Musette: Moroccan potato, tomato and fennel tray bake

It’s autumn and the nights are drawing in. Thoughts turn from salads to warming soups and more substantial stews and casseroles. I love a tray bake particularly when I’m a bit pushed for time. I can mix the ingredients, pop it into the oven and just leave it to do its thing. This bake was inspired by my purchases from Ventimiglia’s market at the week-end, plus a few things which I always have in my cupboards.

Ingredients (enough for four hungry cyclists as a main, or 8 hungry cyclists as a side)

  • 4 medium fennel, about 1kg (2lb)
  • 1kg (2lb) small waxy potatoes, scrubbed, cut into chunks the same size as the tomatoes
  • 2 medium onions, roughly sliced
  • 500g (1lb) cherry tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1tsp ground cumin
  • 2tsp ground coriander
  • 3tbsp olive oil
  • 500ml (2 cups) tomato passata, plus 250ml (1 cup) filtered water
  • 1tbsp tomato paste
  • 2tbsp harissa
  • 450g (1lb) cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 100g (1 cup) pitted green olives
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1tbsp chopped preserved lemon
  • 1tbsp chopped fennel fronds

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C fan/375°F/gas mark 5.

2. Trim the fennel bulbs of their bases, tops and tough outer layer, reserving any green feathery fronds attached to the stalks. Quarter the bulbs then cut each quarter into 2 wedges. Put these into a large roasting dish.

3. Add the potatoes, onions, cherry tomatoes and garlic. Mix the oil, salt, pepper, cumin and coriander together, trickle over the oil and using clean hands stir everything together. Roast in the oven for 60 minutes, giving everything a good stir after about 30 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, in a jug, combine the passata with the water, tomato paste and harissa.

5. When the veg are tender and starting to brown, take the dish out of the oven and add the passata mixture. Stir it in well, deglazing the roasting dish, scraping up any caramelised bits from the base and sides.

6. Add the chickpeas and olives then return the dish to the oven for further 30 minutes or so, until the passata is bubbling and sauce slightly reduced.

7. Check the seasoning, adding more if the dish needs it, and then scatter over the preserved lemon and the reserved fennel fronds – enjoy!

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. You can use other vegetables such as a mix of roughly chopped red, orange or yellow pepper as an alternative to the fennel.

2. Instead of chickpeas, use white beans such as cannellini or butter beans.

3. Eat it with a simple green salad, or a crunchy, Moroccan-style carrot salad.

4. Don’t sweat the quantities, we’re cooking not baking.

5. This dish has a Morrocan flavour due to the spicing but you couls easily change these to something you prefer more.

6. This dish tastes better the following day!

 

Trip to Ventimiglia

After the previous week-end’s aborted trip to Italy for some la dolce vita, we decided to head there again last Saturday. Tucked between southern France to the west and Tuscany to the east, the crescent-shaped coast of Liguria in northwest Italy shares our azure waves and the incredible heights of the Alps soaring above its medieval cities.

The Italian Riviera is divided into two sections though many holidaymakers spend their time on the shores of the Riviera delle Palme (Riviera of Palms) – the eastern half that encompasses well-known destinations such as the Cinque Terra – the less trafficked Riviera dei Fiori (Riviera of Flowers) to the west also enjoys remarkable landscapes but with smaller crowds.

Our destination on Saturday was the ancient beachside town of Ventimiglia which marks the beginning of the Riviera dei FioriWhile its most prominent feature is a train station connecting the two countries (France and Italy) – which is where we always park – the understated city is a living history book. You’ll find traces of human evolution ranging from the prehistoric age through the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and beyond. The city has seen thousands of years of bloody battles over territory as evidenced by the Roman ruins and crumbling Gothic architecture.

For locals, being surrounded by so much natural beauty and history is part of everyday life and this nonchalant attitude is part of the city’s charm. Unlike more well-known towns and cities nearby, Ventimiglia has a sort of undiscovered feel, as if the ancient buildings and shops run by generations of families have escaped the passage of time and the glare of notoriety. People are just doing what they have always done – and they are doing it exceptionally well.

Medieval Old Town of Ventimiglia

Perched on steep cliffs overlooking the sea, the medieval old town served as the fortified city centre through the 1800s. What remains today is an incredibly beautiful and architecturally unusual historical site. There are four churches in the steep, winding streets – one of which, the Church of San Michele, just off of the main road via Garibaldi, is more than 1,000 years old. The granite columns that support the church’s crypt are said to be built from ancient Roman milestones.

Modern Ventimiglia

Below the old city, Ventimiglia has a charming, beachy feel although it’s rocky rather than sandy. On Fridays, tourists flock to the cheap leather goods and cookware on sale at the weekly, open-air market that stretches along the coast road. Year-round, the streets are lined with buzzing cafes, casual restaurants, family-run bakeries and shops selling all manner of Italian goodies. Not forgetting its Mercado Coperto (covered market) located for more than 40 years on Via de la Republica.


Here the many stalls are packed from sunrise to 2pm with fresh, fragrant fruit and vegetables – mostly grown in the surrounding terraced hillsides – plus all manner of Italian meats and cheeses, piles of fresh pasta with homemade sauces and lots of homemade biscuits. It’s here that I enjoy selecting and buying fruit and vegetables from local producers  – so much cheaper than over the border in France – to turn into chutneys, pickles and jams. I also visited the nearby butcher and traiteur to stock up on goodies for my beloved before we chose the all-important restaurant for lunch.

We tend to dine at the family-run La Trattoria to the rear of the market whose set lunch will set you back €12,00 per head, exclusive of wine, coffee and water. It’s all freshly home-made and includes plenty of crowd pleasers. It’s always full so we tend to pop in early to reserve a table inside. We needed a good lunch so that we had enough strength to stagger back to the car with all our purchases.

Of course, Ventimiglia has long been discovered  by those of us who live close by and the prominent language is often French, rather than Italian, which is spoken by all the stall holders, shops keepers and restaurant staff. I insist on talking Italian and I think they appreciate the effort!

Beyond Ventimiglia

dolceacqua-claude-monet-

With the Cote d’Azur as our home base, much of the rest of the region is at our fingertips. The mountain town of Dolceacqua is 7km north of Ventimiglia past terraced olive groves and hillside vineyards that produce the distinctive regional Rossese wine. Dolceacqua is dominated by the striking 12 th century Doria Castle and stone bridge which was immortalised in a series of paintings by Claude Monet including one titled The Castle At Dolceacqua, completed in 1884 and which I’ve seen in The Clark Institute.

Six kilometres east of Ventimiglia, the seaside resort town of Bordighera, has a few trendy cafes and organic produce markets, a long ocean promenade lined with beach bars and glass-walled restaurants, plus a wide rocky shoreline for sunbathing and swimming.

About 16km east of Ventimiglia, Sanremo is the most well-known city in the Riviera dei Fiori and marks the western boundary of the region. With its grand casino, fabulous year round weather and famous music festival, which inspired the Eurovision Song Contest. In the 1950s and 1960s Sanremo rivalled Cannes as a glamorous beach destination. Now it’s more better known as the finish town for the first Monument of the cycling season – Milan – Sanremo.

Memories from World Championships past: Part II

Here’s the second part of my meander down memory lane with my friend Ute covering UCI Road Race World Championships from 2011 to 2015.

Copenhagen 2011

While Ute didn’t travel to Melbourne she once again volunteered in Copenhagen. I had facilitated her application as the section of the website calling for volunteers had only been available in Danish. She still thinks I speak Danish, I’ve not disabused her! Again she worked for a few days in the Press Centre leaving her to enjoy watching some of the racing with me.

Manx Missile in rainbow jersey

Neither of us is tall so we needed to be on the barricades early otherwise we risked having our view blocked by tall northern Europeans, specifically this year by tall Scandinavians. I’m quite sure that Norway and Sweden were empty those few days at the end of September while they lent the Danes a hand trying to drink the place dry! After the race on Sunday I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many empty beer cans discarded by the side of the road.

Ute, being German, generally has the upper hand at most years’ races, results wise. But not on this occasion as Mark Cavendish was guided almost to the line by a tour de force from Team GB. A French friend had asked me to get him Cavendish’s autograph and while I saw him briefly before the post-race press conference, it wasn’t the right moment.

No, that came the following morning as I was checking out of my hotel. Peta and Cav literally bumped into me and I seized my opportunity. My friend was delighted as the autograph was on a copy of the UCI official announcement of the win, accompanied by the route book and other goodies which my friend Bert had given me earlier that morning as I’d waved him off on his plane back to New Zealand. That was the last I saw of Bert who sadly passed away the following September.

Here’s the posts I wrote about my trip back in 2011:-

Cards from Copenhagen I

Cards from Copenhagen II

Cards from Copenhagen III

Cards from Copenhagen IV

Limburg 2012

Ute tried not once, not twice, but three times without success to volunteer. However I think staying in the same hotel as the Belgian team, which included Tom Boonen, more than made up for the disappointment of not having a lurid, ill-fitting volunteer’s outfit to add to her burgeoning collection.

During the Championships I stayed in the same hotel as the Italian and Spanish teams. How fantastic? No, not a bit! Fans and journalists camped out in the entrance hall and bar, hogging the WiFi bandwidth and all the chairs, the hotel corridors smelled of embrocation and there was lots of door banging.

Ute and I loved the fact that few spectators could be bothered to make the trek to the finish line. Well it is 4km from the train station and, unless like me you had got press credentials granting entrance to the press restaurant and facilities, it was pretty poorly served in terms of food and drinks. Still we had a big screen and a great up close and personal view of the podium, so we weren’t complaining. Honestly.

Aside from catching up with people we both knew, being at the finish meant we spent quite some time chatting to anxious Mums and Dads whose offspring were riding in the various categories. It’s always interesting to see a race from someone else’s point of view!

Belgian’s top dog in trade team time-trial (image courtesy of OPQS)

Ute and I spent 10-days in companionable admiration of the racing. This was the first Championship to (re)introduce the trade-team time trial and combine racing for Juniors, Under-23s and Elite so we positively gorged on great racing in an environment where cycling is hugely popular.

Even though I had a great time, I only wrote one blog post about the trip.

Postcard from Limburg 2012

Firenze 2013

Ute worked once more as a volunteer, as did Nathalie, but I didn’t get to spend much time with either as my beloved decided to come along too. We also took our bikes and much enjoyed cycling around the Tuscan countryside.

I have two abiding memories from this Championship. The first was Matej Mohoric who, having won the Junior road race in Limburg, added the Under-23 title at the tender age of 19 with some of his trademark top-tube descending. The second was the Dantesque conditions of the Men’s road race which should’ve been won by the uber-popular Purito Rodriguez. His sad face on the podium was almost more than I could bear.

As in Varese, the Italians contrived to have the start and finish in a stadium and, while viewing en route was free, you had to pay to get into the stadium unless you had accreditation. And that’s largely why my friend Ute volunteers, to get accreditation, though it’s by no means the “open sesame” it was back in Salzburg 2006.

Again, I only penned one post:-

Postcard from Tuscany

Ponferrada 2014

Our trip to the World Championships in Ponferrada was part of a three-week vacation which spanned the Med and Atlantic coasts in both France and Spain. Ute once again volunteered to help out in the Press Centre but I only saw her a couple of times, including at an evening reception about the following year’s Championship in Richmond.

My beloved and I much enjoyed watching the racing in a very convivial atmosphere and in the company of parents who had offspring racing. Since we were all staying in the same small casa rural, it made for a lively discussion over dinner most evenings. As you can see from the photo above, this was not a well-attended Championship. Probably the least well-attended of those I’ve been to, but it wasn’t easy to get there and it was held in an area of Spain with a low population. However, it was a beautiful area to ride around and it’s on one of the many routes to Compostela.

That said, I did manage to write a couple of posts:-

Postcards from Ponferrada I

Postcards from Ponferrada II

Richmond 2015

Official Richmond UCI Road World Championship 2015 artist Greig Leach.

I had high hopes for Richmond which formed the second part of a vacation in the US. We didn’t take our bikes as I’ve found riding in the States to be frankly scary. It was an opportunity for me to finally meet Greig Leach after we’d already worked together on one project and this event was to form the basis of our second collaboration. I also met up with a couple of my fellow VeloVoices. Unbelievably, I’ve still not met everyone on the team.

Ute volunteered and once again spent time in the Press Centre but unlike in Europe, her accommodation was provided by a local host who also made sure she saw plenty of Virginia. I only saw her the once as we were staying in very different parts of town.

My beloved and I enjoyed watching the racing, there was no problem standing close to the finish line for any of the races, even the blue riband event, the Men’s road race. Our hotel was out of Richmond so we camped out at The Marriott Hotel which was almost on the finish line. One of the organisers had told me last year in Ponferrada that they had modelled the event on Salzburg, with everything being in the centre of town.

They’d gotten that part of the equation right and the thousands of Eritrean fans, who’d descended on Richmond for the races, provided lively animation. However, they were no substitute for the thousands of European fans who typically arrive by camping car, and colonise part of the course in order to support their riders. What I’m trying to say is that it was well-organised bur a bit lacking in atmosphere.

Again, I did write a post about our trip:-

Postcard from Richmond

Neither Ute nor I went to Doha 2016. But as an avowed fan of all things Scandinavian, she was in Bergen 2017 and can be found manning the reception desk in the Press Centre at InnsbruckTyrol 2018. We had hoped to meet up this week but sadly work has gotten in the way and I’ll have to settle fo watching the action on the television.

Memories from World Championships past: Part I

I’ve been fortunate to attend ten consecutive UCI Road World Championships. I worked as a volunteer at the first few which gave me an opportunity to make a number of friends whom I continue to meet up with at various cycling events. My first WC was Salzburg 2006 and my last was Richmond 2015. I ducked out of Qatar and Bergen, and was due to attend this week’s in Innsbruck but work intervened! So I’m having a bit of a gander down memory lane revisiting the highlights of championships past with my dear friend Ute who’s manning the reception Desk in the Press Centre in Innsbruck this week.

Salzburg 2006

We first met in Salzburg when we both worked as volunteers. She assisted with the podium ceremony – flags, anthems, flowers etcetera – while I dished out packed lunches to the 2,000 or so volunteers, army, police and municipal workers. Now I appreciate that hers sounds the more glamorous job but mine afforded me the opportunity to see all the racing and catch the action on the podium. Let me explain.

Valeria – another friendship cemented in Salzburg – and I were billeted in a large tent at the back of the press area right next to the all important television chow wagon. That’s right, no packed lunches for us – we were royally fed all week. Most of the volunteers dropped by to collect the lunches for their team but a few had to be delivered giving us an opportunity to get out and about and check on the action.

Super Mario

In Salzburg all the races took place on the same circuit. We watched the race unfold on the adjacent big screen, emerging only to watch the riders pass by from the specially adapted platform for handicapped fans. Now this is going to sound a bit callous but it was a) in a great spot right by the finish and b) they weren’t going to leap up from their wheelchairs and spoil our view. We weren’t the only fans who shared this opportunity. Guess who we met? I have to confess both Valeria and I went a bit weak at the knees, he drips sex-appeal.

Salzburg wins the award for being the best volunteer experience. Largely I think because everything was pretty much in one place, the atmosphere was terrific and, of course, it was our first. You never forget your first anything, do you?

Stuttgart 2007

18 months post-Puerto, the Germans were reluctant hosts and it showed. This time Valeria and I were working in the luxurious surrounding of the UCI’s Congress Hotel in the centre of Stuttgart manning their VIP welcome desk where we provided, and I’m quoting a high-ranking UCI official here, “the best service ever …”

Bert and Me

This was where we first met Bert,who used to attend the Congress on behalf of New Zealand and whose lengthy service to the world of cycling had been recognised by the UCI, Queen and country. He was an old charmer, everyone knew and loved him. I’ve lost count of the number of World Championships he attended but it must be close to 80! (That total includes a few on the track, MTB etc.) He’d seen Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali race and had a whole raft of interesting tales to tell, if only you took the time to sit and listen.

 

Valeria and I both agreed our favourite moment was meeting the incredibly humble, but oh so charming, Miguel Indurain who signed what seemed like hundreds of autographs at our behest for other volunteers. I do believe Valeria still has the photo I took of her snuggles up to Miguel wearing that rather Bet Lynch-ish low-necked leopard print top!

Stuttgart stands alone in not winning any prizes whatsoever, rather we’ve awarded it a big fat raspberry.

Varese 2008

Drawn by Nathalie and signed by Tom

Home to the Mapei centre, the town of Varese embraced and celebrated the World Championships with a style not seen before or since, by me at least. I was staying in a small guest house not far from the town centre where I was working in the accreditation centre: more long but enjoyable days.

Mine hosts served breakfast whenever I wanted and would rush to comfort me when I arrived back from a long day’s work with herbal tea and home-made cake. I never wanted to leave, have remained in touch and visited many times since. Ute was again manning the flagpoles. I worked with a great crowd of largely local students and bonded with fellow fan Nathalie. We’ve kept in touch and frequently meet up at Italian races.

Varese wins my prize for the nicest volunteer outfit by a street mile. Grey trousers, light blue polo shirt, navy blue v-necked sweater and quite my favourite backpack which I still use. Sadly, the trousers had matchstick legs, they probably only fitted the hostesses and podium girls.

Mendrisio 2009

Swiss boys: Fabian with my friend

Again I’d volunteered but as it was only 10km up the road from the previous year’s event, the organisers were swamped with applications and decided not to take anyone from outside the region. Ute threw a wobbly and, fearful of an international incident, the organisers wisely gave her a position in the Press Centre. I stayed with my friend in Lugano, helped out on the Santini stand, saw all of the racing and rode my bike on the road race circuit. My friend Nathalie was a hostess in the VIP stand where, with the exception of Sunday, staff outnumbered guests. We chatted using sign language as I was camped out on the 50m to go line opposite.

My favourite moment came when I was riding along the flatter part of the circuit and seemed to be drawing a fair amount of excited interest from the fans on the roadside. I looked around to find none other than Fabian Cancellara sucking my wheel. I flicked my elbow and he obligingly came through. I stayed on his wheel for another five or so kilometres, admiring his fluid pedal stroke, until the road turned upwards and I slid off said wheel.

Mendrisio wins my prize for the most exciting racing. You may recall Cancellara won the time trial so easily he was celebrating 100m from the line and Cadel Evans won the men’s road race having demonstrated he was indeed an attacking rider.

Should you wish to know more about my trip and the racing, here’s the links to the posts I wrote back in 2009, the year I started the blog:-

Observations from Mendrisio

Postcards from Mendrisio I

Postcards from Mendrisio II

Postcards from Mendrisio III

Melbourne 2010


This wins my prize for the best organised and most fan-friendly event despite it being staged some 70-odd kilometres from Melbourne in Geelong. Fans had access to both sides of the finish line while the UCI’s guests and sponsors tents were at the base of the final drag. Viewing spots with refreshments and a big screen were dotted all over the course and given different nationalities. I was again camped out on the 50m line next to the hard-core Tom Boonen fan club that had turned up even though their hero hadn’t. Shame, really, the course would’ve suited him.

I again rode the course, this time on a hired mountain bike. I was glad of the lower gearing on both of those strenuous climbs. One moment sticks in my memory from Melbourne. I was enjoying a coffee in the Spanish team hotel when they found out about Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol. They were shocked, devastated and extremely upset. That news effectively killed off the Spanish challenge.

Again, here are the links to some of the posts I wrote about the racing:-

Postcards from Melbourne III

Postcards from Melbourne IV

Postcards from Melbourne V

Memories of Melbourne I

Memories of Melbourne II

You’ll find my thoughts on the UCI Road World Championships from Copenhagen 2011 to Richmond 2015 in Part II.

Cosseted in the British countryside

I’m a big fan of The Four Seasons, not the four violin concerti by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, but the hotel management group. I’ve been fortunate to either stay in or visit a number of their hotels over the years – far too many to mention. You may find this surprising since I’m usually banging the drum for small, family-run businesses and these guys are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Or are they? I find that thanks to their excellently trained staff and philosophy, I always feel cosseted in their hotels.

The hotels they run are oases of tranquility with all the bells and whistles one’s little heart could desire. Despite the large throughput of guests, staff miraculously remember your name, and particular likes and dislikes. Nothing is ever too much trouble, not even my regime. The hotel whipped me up a scrumptious vegan afternoon tea at the drop of a hat!

I booked the hotel over a year ago because the wedding we were attending, which was a short car ride away, clashed with a Classic Car event at nearby Goodwood. I was also pretty certain we’d be the only wedding guests staying at this hotel thereby obviating the need to socialise further. I wanted a restful and relaxing week-end with my beloved which would serve as an early celebration of our (41st) wedding anniversary – where have those years gone? And, I think it’s fair to say, we achieved that.

We did however bump into someone we knew. Spookily, we’d only been talking about him five minutes before and were surprised to see him. I think that surprise was reciprocated though, of course, he may’ve wondered why his ears were burning.

The hotel grounds were enormous and despite my beloved’s leg, which was still painful, we had a very pleasant meander. We also enjoyed looking at the car porn. A number of guests had driven their Classic Cars to the event and you could see by their immaculate state that these were their pride and joy – all that gleaming chrome and immaculate paintwork.

We were not familiar with this part of the country, so spent an afternoon pottering around nearby Farnham, a pretty market town with bags of history, lots of interesting buildings and a good selection of shops and restaurants, the latter with many vegan options. Having eaten in the hotel restaurant on Thursday evening, we ate in Farnham on Saturday. No need to eat dinner after the mid-afternoon wedding luncheon on Friday, though we did have a couple of glasses of Rioja in the bar before retiring.

A copious breakfast was included in our room rate and my beloved enjoyed a full English most days while I enjoyed the selection provided for the hotel’s Middle Eastern guests. Fresh fruit, moutabal, salad and hummous for breakfast may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it certainly floats my boat.

A late check out allowed us to fully enjoy the hotel’s facilities, particularly in the Spa, before tucking into Sunday afternoon tea in the library ahead of our departure. It was a lovely three-day break and we enjoyed chatting about France, in French, with some of the staff, one of whom came from Nice.

When we checked out the receptionist asked me which other Four Seasons we’d visited. It was only as I started rattling them off that I appreciated just how many of them we’ve stayed at, or eaten at, and I thought about why. Largely because it’s a brand I trust. I know what I’m going to find, that’s often very comforting because I so don’t like surprises.

European Heritage in Cagnes sur Mer

Last year, quite by chance, we spent The European Heritage Days in Paris poking around buildings and gardens which are not normally readily accessible by the public. This is a widely celebrated participatory cultural event launched in 1985 in France and now embraced by all 50 European States with the shared objective of promoting common understanding of cultural diversity, local skills and traditions, architectural styles and work of art that form part of the European Heritage.

These events happen all over, not just in the major cities. Here in Cagnes sur Mer, they hold a celebratory event at Auguste Renoir’s former house (now a museum) on the Sunday. Everyone’s encouraged to dress in the Belle Epoque style and enjoy a picnic – you know how the French enjoy a picnic –  under the olive trees in Renoir’s garden.

Yes, one of the great masters of Impressionism, Renoir built his house-workshop in Cagnes sur Mer in 1908 where he lived until his death, painting over 720 canvases. Consequently, many artists settled in Cagnes sur Mer, which became know as “the little Montmartre of the Côte d’Azur!”

Here’s a video of a small piece from French television from a couple of years ago to give you some idea of the day’s events.

In case you were wondering, Dejeurner sur l’Herbe was, of course, a painting by Manet, another of the great Impressionists, which was turned into a film by Jean Renoir  – no relation.

In order to maintain the 1900s theme coolers are forbidden, unless you can hide them in wicker style baskets and you’re encouraged to bring a white or checked tablecloth to complete the picture.

Of course, it’s not just about the picnic, there’s a whole day of events:-

 

  • Lace-making demonstration by Les Dentelières. From 10:00 am – 05:00 pm under the lime trees
  • Ride in vintage cars from the town centre to the Renoir museum, departing at 10:30 am
  • Flora and fauna walks in the Renoir Garden’s starting at the farm from 02:30 pm
  • Old-timer car exhibition 04:00 pm in front of Renoir’s House
  • Games of yesteryear from 10:00 am – 04:00 pm
  • Musical entertainment

I’ll be honest, I’ve visited the museum and gardens numerous times. It gives you a very personal view of the artist, his daily life, and the importance of his family.  You can even go into his studio and see his brushes and the last paint colours he was using. It was Renoir’s family home for the last 12 years of his life and although he filled it with his sculptures, paintings, furnishings, photographs and personal effects, understandably not all his works remain. It’s a charming spot, well worth a visit but I’ve not yet had a picnic in the grounds –  Maybe, next year.

Bidding a fond farewell to Igor Anton

Like many cycling fans, I’m experiencing withdrawal symptoms after a thrilling Vuelta a Espana 2018. I just love it when you don’t know who’s going to win until the last few stages. It’s so much more exciting. I was bitterly disappointed not to go to any stages this year, particularly as the race started in Andalucia, and also visited Asturias and the Basque country. All places I love to visit.

Our first Vuelta was 2011, when we went to watch the stages which started and finished in Bilbao. Stage 19, the first stage of the Vuelta to be held in the Basque country for over 30 years, was fittingly won by Basque rider Igor Anton, then riding for Euskaltel-Euskadi #Carrots.

I say fittingly because the previous year Anton had crashed out of the Vuelta while wearing the red leader’s jersey. His brave soldier face and bloodied body as he was folded into his team car is an abiding memory. Sadly, he never again reached such heady heights and on Sunday bought the curtain down on his illustrious 14 year professional career (incl. GC win in Vuelta Asturias, 4 stages in Vuelta a Espana, 1 stage Giro d’Italia, 2 stages Tour de Romandie, 3rd on GC at Tour de Suisse).

The 35 year-old Basque from Galdakao in Vizcaya started his professional career with the Euskaltel – Euskadi team in 2005 and when it sadly folded nine years later, he joined Movistar in 2014 before signing for what was to be his last team, Dimension Data in 2016.

Anton explained why he was retiring in an open letter:

The Vuelta a Espana has defined me as a person in many aspects, it is where I achieved my best results, it gave me some of my best moments and some of my worst moments. Therefore, after thinking well about my career, I have decided that tomorrow I will end my career with my final race number, 102.

It is a fitting scenario and race to bring this adventure I have been on to an end. This chapter of my life has been unbelievable, and I would not want to change anything because I have been privileged to make a small contribution to the long and magnificent history of the sport of cycling.

I want to say a big THANKS to all the partners that supported me at my 3 teams; Euskaltel-Euskadi, Movistar Team and Dimension Data for Qhubeka. From the first day of my career until this very last moment I have been backed by these incredible organisations. At Team Dimension Data I had three very special years and it was a great experience to be part of this unique project, it made my career so much more interesting.

I want to remember my mother MaryJose in this time, who I dearly miss. She sacrificed a lot for me and put in great effort to help me achieve my dream. Also, my father, he allowed me to pursue this career. My wife, she suffered with me through all of the bad moments but always stayed by my side to help me through the tough situations. Then to my loving daughter Udane, because she is my engine now.

I’d like to wish Anton all the best, much happiness and every success in whatever he decides to do next.

Trip to La Turbie

We decided to pop over into Italy on Saturday for a spot of food shopping and lunch. We left  later than we intended and just after the St Isidore exit we ground to a halt. There had been a major incident on the motorway  – a car had burst into flames. We didn’t move for over an hour. We then crawled along for a bit as the traffic was down to a single lane. As soon as we got moving again, we took an executive decision to annul our trip to Italy, we’d go next weekend.

This is the first time we’ve been caught up in this type of incident and our thoughts went out to those who may have been injured in the incident. I then had a lightbulb moment. We weren’t too far from a restaurant which I have adjudged to be the perfect neighbourhood restaurant.

Sadly, it’s not nearby, it’s in La Turbie, a charming historic village overlooking the Principality of Monaco, which stands on a remarkable natural site offering one of the most splendid panoramas on the French Riviera. Though not yesterday when there was low-lying cloud.

We got to know the village many years ago as it’s a favourite with cyclists. There’s a water fountain on the main road on the way back from rides to Monaco/Menton and just down the road from Eze. We found the restaurant, which is next to the fountain, while we were cycling back from a particularly arduous ride where my tank was empty. The restaurant was offering a very keenly priced set lunch which included lobster salad as a starter. Sold to the female cyclist!


It’s a restaurant where you need either to have booked or arrive as soon as service starts. It’s owned by the chef from the nearby Michelin starred Hostellerie Jerome, which is in a 13th century former Cistercian monastery. The restaurant looks unprepossessing, no starched white linen tablecloths but the food is excellent – menu short and seasonal – and the small selection of wines is keenly priced. On Saturday we snagged the only remaining table for two!

I had wild mushrooms to start followed by salmon with ratatouille. Sadly, there was no room for the home-made fig sorbet and figs. My beloved had home-made ravioli followed by a tip-top steak and chips with béarnaise sauce. Replete, we had a quick wander round the town picking up some bread from the excellent bakery and patisserie a couple of doors down, before driving back over Col d’Eze.

La Turbie has an interesting history, largely on account of its geographical position. The ancient Romans built a monumental Trophy there to honour the conquests of the Emperor Augustus which originally consisted of a round tower, surrounded by Doric columns, built on a square platform bearing the names of the 44 people subdued in the Ligurian campaign. It stood 49 metres high and was topped by a giant statue of the Emperor.


It was used as a fortress in the 12th century, dismantled by Louis XIV, and was then transformed into a … stone quarry. It was subsequently restored by a generous American donor called Edward Tuck. Today all that remains is a fraction of the tower with its columns and niches which housed the statues. That said, it’s still worth a visit, as is the village itself with its charming houses, meandering walkways and spectacular views back down to the coast.

The Musette: Coques – Andorran flat cakes

The Vuelta a Espana is dipping its toe into Andorra, home to many a professional cyclist on account of its favourable tax regime. I understand Andorran cooking is similar to Catalan but with influences from both France and, surprisingly, Italy.

I looked around for a traditional Andorran recipe and found coques, a flat cake made from a thick pancake-type mixture and stale bread. I’m not sure whether it’s a household staple but it sounds like the type of recipe where everyone probably has their own version. So, in the interests of research, I though I’d give it a go. I have to be honest, the first batch was a complete disaster so I played around with the recipe and my second attempt was delicious.

Revised list of ingredients for Coques (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (serves eight as a dessert)

  • 150g (2 cups) fresh white bread cut into small cubes (I used brioche)
  • 120g (1 cup) caster sugar
  • 150ml (⅔ cup) almond milk
  • 4 large preferably organic eggs, each weighing approx. 45g (1⅔oz) without the shell
  • 200g (1⅔ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 100g (1 cup) freshly ground almonds
  • 1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C fan/gas mark 5 (375°F/350°F fan) and line two baking trays with greaseproof (parchment) paper.

2. Beat the eggs in a bowl with the sugar until light and fluffy, then fold in the sifted flour, ground almonds, lemon zest and almond milk in batches, starting and ending with the flour and almonds. Cover the bowl and set aside to rest for an hour in the fridge.

3. Once the batter has rested, gently incorporate the bread cubes. Divide the mixture roughly into four and dollop onto the tins and spread to make two similarly-sized rectangles on both sheets. I trace two rectangles on the paper and then turn them over – to prevent getting pencil on the baked coques –  with the outlines visible from the reverse side.

4. Place them in the oven and bake until nicely golden brown and cooked through (about 20 minutes).

6. Cut the coques into triangles and serve warm, dusted with a little icing (confectioners’) sugar.

Sheree's Coques (image; Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the coques in the oven, put the timer on for 3-5  minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the coques are browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover them with an aluminium foil tent.

4. In devising my version, I reduced the amount of sugar from the original recipe by a third and substituted equal quantities of vegetable oil and hot water with almond milk. I also substituted one-third of the flour with ground almonds and added the lemon zest. So, not too much in common with the original recipe!

5. I’ve also made this recipe into one large coque, covered with really thin slices  – use a mandolin and mind your fingers – of eating apples with a few pieces of unsalted butter and soft brown sugar scattered on the top. Then, when it’s cooked, I glazed it with thinned down apricot jam to give a nice shiny finish.

6. Otherwise, I suggest serving them with some seasonal fresh fruit, such as apricots or peaches which will go well with the almond flavour in the coques.

Tax office terrors

In France taxes are dealt with locally. However, I have found that you can never get anyone on the telephone nor do they respond to email, your only real recourse is to attend in person. The office’s opening hours are 08:30 to 12:30, weekdays only. I had previously written to them about this matter but had not received any response. My accountant had then written to them and it had similarly fallen on deaf ears. There was nothing else for it, I would have to attend in person.

Unfortunately the tax office, along with that of the main post office, is close to the beach and surrounded by that holy grail, free car parking! So, of course, it’s absolutely impossible to park within a kilometre of either when the weather’s fine. By the time I’d found a parking spot and walked back, it was 08:16 and I was already 19th in the queue!

Everyone is dealt with in turn by the receptionist but it’s a frankly long-winded affair. Most of the issues arise from the elderly, and you understand I’m not including myself in this group, being unable to make their declarations and payments on line or advise of their change of address.

Having finally reached the head of the queue I explain the purpose of my visit to the receptionist, I’m filtered upstairs for yet another wait. This time there are just three people in front of me. However, these are weightier discussions, and I’ve a) no way of knowing how long they’ll take and b) how many people are actually available to deal with these matters. After a while, it becomes apparent there’s only one person available. I’m just hoping I get in and out before my parking ticket runs out!

Finally, it’s my turn. I’m ushered into an office with yet another gate-keeper. I once again explain the purpose of my visit and hand over the relevant forms, in duplicate. One in English, on which I require a signature and tampon, and the other in French for their records. The gatekeeper explains he can’t sign the form, I need that of the Controller who is seated behind the door, out of view but within earshot. He appears to be taking a rather long-winded telephone call. So they do respond to calls, just not mine!

Resigning myself to a lengthier wait or even having to return another day to collect the signed form, I’m taken aback when the gatekeeper quickly gets the Controller’s signature on the form and applies the tampon – nothing is official in France without a tampon! Absolutely nothing on the form has been checked and I’m in and out within 5 minutes! Okay, I had an hour’s wait to get into the Holy Grail, but once inside…….

I’m thinking I’m going to follow the same procedure, ie visit in person, for my French driving licence, our French residency and French passport applications down at the Prefecture, once I’ve concluded the great paper chase.