The Musette: indulgent fish pie

We don’t get many visitors who stay overnight largely because we work from home. My brother-in-law and his wife recently spent a long week-end with us and I much enjoyed catering for them. My sister-in-law is a very skilled practionner of arts & crafts but not a particularly keen cook. I’m the opposite, barely capable of sewing a button back on but right at home in the kitchen. So it was a real treat to cook for them for a few days.

The fish pie is a British classic but all too often the fish ends up completely over cooked, lacking its identity, texture and flavour. In this recipe, I cool the sauce and then add the fish to the cold sauce before baking in a hot oven. This ensures that the fish is not over-cooked. This versatile recipe can be made with whatever fish you prefer. You can be creative with flavouring it, adding your favourite herbs and even some vegetables. You can make and chill the sauce ahead of time, or assemble the pie, minus the topping, and freeze.

Ingredients (serves 4 hungry cyclists)

  • 2 large shallots or 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 40g (3 tbs) butter
  • 1 large thyme sprig, leaves only
  • 4 tbsp Noilly Prat, dry vermouth or dry sherry
  • 2 tsp Pernod (optional)
  • 4 tbsp plain flour
  • 250ml (1 cup) fish, chicken or vegetable stock (a stock cube is fine)
  • 200ml (3/4 cup) milk
  • 4 tbsp double (heavy) cream
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 250g (1/2 lb) skinless salmon or cod fillets
  • 180g (6 oz) smoked haddock fillets
  • 200g (7 oz) scallops
  • 150g (5 oz) large prawns, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tbsp fresh organic lemon juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Creamed Potato Topping

  • 750g (1 1/2lbs) potatoes, peeled
  • 75g (5 tbsp) butter, cubed
  • 50ml (1/4 cup) hot milk or single cream
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 75g (2/3 cup) medium Emmental (or similar) cheese, finely grated

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6 (400°F). Grease a shallow (about 2 litre /8 cups capacity) pie dish.

2. Start by making the mashed potato for the topping. Chop the potatoes into chunks and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Drain well and push through a potato ricer, or mash until smooth. Add the butter and hot milk or cream and mix until well incorporated. Allow to cool slightly, then stir in the egg yolks. Season well and put to one side.

3. Sauté the shallots or onion and celery in the oil and butter with the thyme leaves for about 10 minutes until softened. Add the Noilly Prat and Pernod (if using), then cook for 4–5 minutes until reduced right down.

4. Stir in the flour and cook for a minute or so. Heat the stock in a small pan or a jug in the microwave. Gradually stir it into the vegetable mixture with a wooden spoon until smooth, and boil for about 5 minutes until reduced by a third. Mix in the milk, lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes. Season well, then add the cream and parsley and leave to cool.

5. Meanwhile, cut the fish into bite-sized chunks and scatter in the pie dish with the scallops and prawns. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and seasoning. Put the dish on a baking sheet.

6. Pour over the cool sauce and mix well but gently with a fork. Pipe the mashed potato on top or spread and fluff it up with a fork. Scatter with the grated cheese and put the pie immediately in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F), and bake for another 20 minutes, turning the dish if it starts to brown unevenly. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving and receiving plaudits!

7. Serve the fish pie with fresh steamed greens (peas, asparagus, spinach or broccoli are perfect) and a nice glass or two of your favourite white wine.

Days out: Fabre Museum, Montpellier

Having spent the morning strolling around Montpellier in the warm sunshine, I was happy to retreat indoors in the afternoon to explore some more of the city’s hidden gems. But first my beloved and I dined in the museum’s restaurant which came highly recommended. We were not disappointed!

Modern work from Chinese artist

Entering the Fabre Museum, a step or two away from Place de la Comédie, means plunging into a wonderful world that is both far away and close at hand. Because this superb museum, opened in the early 19th century, featuring the collections of François-Xavier Fabre, contains major works from the history of art and the best productions from the past 300 years by artists with special links to Montpellier and the region.

A painting by Corot

Vien, Raoux, Bourdon, Fabre, Cabanel, Bazille, as well as Claude Viallat and Vincent Bioulès, are displayed side by side with Bruegel, Rubens, Veronese, Poussin, Ingres, Corot, Monet, Utrillo, Van Dongen and de Staël. Not forgetting a handful of portraits by David and Delacroix.

Grand scale
Look at the lovely mosaic floor
Fabulous frieze

Through the museum’s three levels, you advance through time, from Flemish and Dutch painting and the Italian Renaissance to the centuries of classicism and flamboyance. I walked through the Columns Gallery, where the large-scale paintings from the 18th century fill the walls, to more intimate rooms, featuring NeoClassicism and Romanticism, Classicism and modern art.

More supersized art

I wandered on through into the contemporary section, its two exposed concrete rooms were specially designed for works by Pierre Soulages, a keen visitor to the Museum.

Plenty of spectacular artworks

The Fabre Museum has one of the most important fine art collections in France. It’s a fascinating and comprehensive collection of artworks spanning the ages and well worth a visit. Surprisingly, I had the place almost to myself!

Friday Photo Challenge – changeable

Spring is in full swing and we’re finally getting some much needed rain. I never thought I’d say that but flora and fauna need rain to flourish. Here, it’ll often rain overnight, start a little overcast before the sun makes a welcome appearance around midday. Sometimes it’ll rain early morning or late afternoon. Othertimes, it just pours. All. Day. It rains so hard I can barely see beyond the terrace. On these days I just stay indoors and get on with my oh so long “To Do List.”

With over 300 days a year of sunshine, we don’t have too many rainy or grey days. However, I love the monochrome outlook on grey days or mornings. There’s something magical in the way the diffused light hits the water which, by the way, looks like liquid mercury.

Thursday doors #13

I love spotting businesses, generally shops and restaurants, that have been around for decades. Usually they’re family businesses which have been handed down the generations.  As I was wandering around Castres in the January sunshine this door caught my eye.

If you’re wondering, the P stands for Pierre!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

Missing Itzulia

This week sees the 59th running of the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta al Pais Vasco) and we’re not there, again! We’ve watched this stage race continuously from 2011 but were forced to miss the last two years’ because of issues with my beloved’s hip. It’s now happily mended but sadly pressure of work has prevented the resumption of our visits. To console myself, I thought I’d write a bit about this year’s race which started today.

La Concha beach San Sebastian regularly voted best in class

As you all know, I love the race’s location. The Basque Country is famous for its sunny beaches, scintillating modern architecture and for its feisty, cycling-mad natives. It’s also simply beautiful: bright white chalet-style homes with deep-red, blue or green shutters scatter across lush, rolling hills; the Pyrenees Mountains soar high above the Atlantic; and surfers and sardines share the waves. The dazzling architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao modern-art museum and the glittering resort of San Sebastian draw enthusiastic crowds, while traditional small towns, such as Lekeitio and Hondarribia, are also thriving, making the entire region colourful, fun and welcoming.

The race route (in red above) typically covers a significant part of the Spanish Basque Country visiting some old favourites, such as its capital Vitoria-Gasteiz and the climb to Arrate from Eibar. But none of it’s ever too far away so it’s possible to base yourself in one hotel and travel daily to each of the start and finish lines.

To watch the race, we’ve peviously stayed in some lovely locations such as Getaria, a small fishing resort on the coast not far from San Sebastian.

Getaria

And we’ve stayed inland among those dark satanic hills.

Home from home

But, wherever we’ve stayed, Basque hospitality has been delightful, plentiful and very reasonably priced!

This year’s race kicks off in Zumarraga, as it did back in 2011, so it’s a place we’ve visited a few times. In the town centre, there’s the charming arcaded square in the middle of which is a bronze statue dedicated to Miguel López de Legazpi, conqueror of the Philippines. Those Basques sailed everywhere! Plus, there’s a 19th century neo-classical town hall, the Itarte and Uzkanga houses, and a16th century Gothic church, Santa María de la Asunción. 

Interestingly, this year’s race begins (rather than concludes) with an individual time-trial which will be short (11.3km) but intense because the final  2.3km has an average gradient of 9.7%, reaching a maximum of 21% in the final 100 meters. This is pretty typical of climbs in the Basque Country, short but rarely sweet!

As is customary, the second stage starts where the first one leaves off in Zumarraga, finishing 150km or so later in Gorraiz after 4,800 metres of climbing. There are hardly any flat roads in the Basque Country – I speak from bitter experience. Gorraiz is in Navarra, not too far from its main town of Pamplona.

Typically, the parcours visits all the autonomous community of the Basque Country plus the Foral one of Navarra. We’ve never visited Gorraiz but I suspect it has been included on the parcours to showcase its its recently rebuilt 16th century palace and church of San Esteban (pictured above right).

Day three starts at one of yesterday’s sprint points, the ancient town of Sarrigurenat which is now home to an EcoCity dedicated to preserving the ecological habitat of its surrounding plains. It’s the longest stage of the race with an undulating 191km finishing at 12th century Romanesque Estibaliz Sanctuary (above), dedicated to the patron saint of Álava. We’ve not previously visited either of these towns, although we’ve cycled around Navarra, watched the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Pamplona and seen the GP Miguel Indurrain in Estella several times.

The fourth stage starts in the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz which has a simply lovely Old Town with some of the best preserved medieval streets and plazas in the region, plus two cathedrals. The stage, another undulating one, finishes in Arrigorriaga, a small town just outside of Bilbao, which has a parish church dating back to 9th century. While, we’re very familiar with Vitoria-Gasteiz, I don’t recollect ever visiting the finish town.

The event now starts to hot up with what is often its race defining penultimate stage, finishing in Arrate. Just look at the snaggle-toothed race profile, those boys are going to have weary legs! We’re back on very familiar  territory [to us]. The entire final climb will be lined with enthusiastic and knowledgable Basque cycling fans, most of whom will have ridden up the ascent. I have to hold my hand up here and admit we always drive up!

I can still remember Samu Sanchez winning here in 2012, his third consecutive win on this climb, before going on to lift the overall.

Though possibly the most entertaining victor at Arrate was Diego Rosa who in 2016 lifted his bike aloft before soloing across the line on foot!

The final day has only six summits (gulp) and will be raced around Eibar, so often the concluding town for this event. It’s a pleasant place to potter around while the riders are cresting those climbs though much of it has been rebuilt since being destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. It was formerly known for its armaments industry many of whose companies, such as BH and Orbea, now manufacture bikes.

So, there you have it: 784kms over six stages which include an individual time-trial and tackle 22 summits. I’ve no idea who’s going to win this year’s race. It’ll have its usual sprinkling of mountain goats and Basque riders. The locals will be hoping that one of the latter manages to climb atop the podium, preferably onto the top step. It’s a race much prized for its tough parcours and ability to get riders to peak for the Ardennes Classics or in form for the Giro d’Italia. I have friends riding so I’ll be watching the race every day on the television and cheering them on – aupa!

A few (more) reasons to visit France in 2019

According to World Atlas (see table below), France is the most visited country in the world, so I probably don’t need to give you any more reasons to come and visit! Nonetheless, I’m going to try.

The World’s Most Visited Countries
  1. France – 86.9 million visitors.
  2. Spain – 81.8 million visitors.
  3. United States – 76.9 million visitors.
  4. China – 60.7 million visitors.
  5. Italy – 58.3 million visitors.
  6. Mexico – 39.3 million visitors.
  7. United Kingdom – 37.7 million visitors.
  8. Turkey – 37.6 million visitors.

1. 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings and Battle of Normandy

This year France is celebrating its freedom in a big way. In memory of 6 June 1944, the day of the Allied landings on the Normandy coast, international commemorations for the 75th anniversary will include spectacular fireworks, a giant picnic on Omaha Beach and a whole host of other events, details of which can be found here.

2. Loire Valley celebrates 500 years of French Renaissance

2019 marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci at Clos-Lucé in Amboise, the birth of Queen Catherine de Médici and the start of construction for the Chateau de Chambord. The region of Centre-Val de Loire is set to celebrate this momentous triple anniversary with a plethora of events throughout the year making it a great time to (re)discover the treasures of the region: three UNESCO-listed sites (the cathedrals of Bourges and Chartres and the Loire Valley itself), six cities of art and history, 65 museums, 70 parks and gardens. Need I say more? You’ll find more details here.

3. The Pinault Collection opens in Paris

In autumn 2019, the Pinault Collection of contemporary and modern art will go on display inside the former Bourse de Commerce in Paris. The restoration and renovation works began in summer 2017 headed by architects Tadao Ado & Associates. This neoclassical building-in-the-round is located in a recess between numbers 40 and 42 Rue du Louvre, on the western end of the Nelson Mandela garden at Les Halles. The choice of the collection’s location, near the Pompidou Centre, the Louvre, and the Musée d’Orsay, is symbolic. Read more about this exciting project here.

4. Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie, Lyon

From this autumn, foodies will be able to visit the brand new Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie in Lyon at the Grand Hôtel-Dieu which will be a place dedicated to “eating healthily and living well. The building which dates from 16th and 18th centuries aims to offer a vision of culinary culture where excellence, diversity and accessibility will be key. Find out more here.

 

Thursday doors #12

I have always taken photographs of interesting doors but since I started taking part in this challenge I’ve upped the number of photos. This is not really a problem because there are so many interesting and beautiful doors, wherever I look. And, I look a lot.

Today’s photo features the beautiful Art Deco door of Nice’s Town Hall. The building was constructed between 1730 and 1750 and fulfilled various functions (seminary, prison, cop shop and hospital) before becoming the town hall in 1860. It was totally renovated on the initiative of Mayor Jean Médecin, in 1930-31, when its interior and exterior was rendered in Art Deco style by architect Clément Goyeneche.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).