The Musette: vegan baked orzo

Friends recently invited us to dinner at a restaurant in nearby Monte Carlo which is run by a friend of theirs. I would describe the food as modern Mediterranean with an emphasis on wonderfully fresh seafood – our kind of restaurant.

We had the chef’s choice which seemed to involve one of everything on the menu. It was delicious but way too much food. Unfortunately doggie bags are so not the thing in Monte Carlo! One of the final dishes (served as a side dish) was delicious baked orzo which prompted my beloved to remind me that I hadn’t made one for him for some time.

Orzo (rice shaped pasta) is incredibly useful as it cooks quickly and is good both hot and cold. I often use it in a shrimp and lemon pasta salad – perfect for picnics. However, here’s my baked version which I whipped up hot for lunch and then we ate it again cold the following day. Both versions were equally delicious.

Ingredients (serves 4 hungry cyclists as a main, 6 as a side)

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • half yellow onion, diced
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 80g (1 cup) kale, chopped
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 175g (1 cup) uncooked orzo
  • 500g (1lb) cherry tomatoes and courgette (zucchini), chopped
  • 200g (1 cup) cooked haricot beans or chickpeas
  • 600ml (2 1/2 cups) vegetable stock or water
  • (vegan) feta cheese, fresh lemon and parsley to serve

Method

1.Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F/325°F fan).

2. In a large oven-safe pan (skillet), heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and salt. Saute for 10 minutes or until soft, then add garlic, red pepper, red pepper flakes and tomatoes.

3. Saute for another approx. 10 minutes, then add courgettes and kale. Cook until the kale is wilted.

4. Add the orzo, beans or chickpeas and stock. Bring to a simmer before popping in the oven.

5. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the orzo is al dente. Don’t overcook it as it’ll continue to cook and absorb any stock/sauce in the pan once you take it out of the oven.

6. Finish by crumbling feta over the top, dusting with some fresh parsley, lemon juice, freshly ground black pepper and some extra virgin olive oil – enjoy.

7. It’ll keep happily in the fridge for a couple of days. Reheat or allow to come to room temperature if eating cold.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1.You can play around with the ingredients just so long as you maintain the proportion of liquid to dried pasta. For example, in the winter months I might make this with a tin/jar of tomatoes bolstered with a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and just 480-500ml (2 cups) of stock.

2. Feel free to replace the kale with another green, such as spinach.

3. You can substitute the chickpeas or beans with meat or seafood for a non-vegan version.

4. I serve it cold the following day on a bed of rocket with the same toppings though I’ll often add pomegranate seeds, rather than lemon, and a touch of chopped mint with the parsley.

 

The Musette: pecan crumbles

I found some pecans in the cupboard close to their suggested expiration date which prompted a spot of experimentation – my favourite type of cooking. The end result was these buttery, crumbly, heavenly bites. Yes, my beloved managed to snaffle a couple before the hordes descended. They take no time at all to whip up and just melt in the mouth. It’s just the sort of thing I might take along to Steve’s on one of his coffee mornings. I’m sure the gang would enjoy them. Of course, I’d have to make some gluten-free ones for Steve.

Just a few glorious ingredients and voila (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (makes 24 bite-sized biscuits)

  • 115g (1 stick) soft unsalted butter
  • 120g (1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 75g (½ cup) caster (super-fine) sugar
  • 100g (1 cup) toasted, chopped pecan nuts
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Pinch of fine sea salt

Method

1. Preheat oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas mark 4 (350°F/325°F fan) and line two baking sheets (if necessary, you can bake these in batches) with greaseproof (parchment) paper.

2. Preferably with a mixer (hand or stand) cream together the sugar and butter until it’s light and fluffy (3-4 minutes).

3. Beat in the vanilla and salt, reduce speed to low and gradually add the sifted flour until just combined. Fold in the cooled toasted and chopped pecans.

4. Place the dough in the fridge covered in cling film (plastic wrap) for at least 30 minutes.

5. Portion the dough into bite-sized morsels – I use a small ice cream scoop – and place on the baking sheets a couple of centimetres (¾ inch) apart. They don’t spread much at all. Flatten slightly with a damp finger.

Smallest size ice cream scoop

6. Bake, rotating the sheets if necessary half-way through, until the biscuits are golden brown for around 13-15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow  to cool completely on a wire rack.

7. Should they last that long, the cookies can be stored in an airtight tin for up to five days. The dough can be portioned, frozen and kept in the freezer for up to a month.

A suitable "thank-you" gift (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 biscuits in the oven, put the timer on for 2-3 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. The biscuits can be cooked from frozen and I find they only take a minute or so more to cook.

4. You can substitute the pecans with toasted chopped walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts or almonds. They are all equally delicious.

The Musette: maple caramel pears

Yesterday evening we had a crowd of friends round for dinner. As we’re still enjoying wonderfully sunny and warm weather, I wanted something light which would appeal to everyone and could be served at room temperature outside on the terrace.

We started with an apero of sparkling rosé wine with nibbles, followed by my gazpacho soup with water melon and black olive fougasse.

A main course of Salade Niçoise, made with salmon not tuna,

followed by these soft caramel pears. It can all be prepared well in advance so, no stress!

 

 Ingredients (serves 4 people)

  • 150ml (3/4 cup) maple syrup
  • 50g (1/4 cup) raw cane sugar
  • 30g (1/3rd stick) unsalted butter, diced
  • juice and zest organic orange
  • juice ½ organic lemon
  • splash of pear liquer (optional)
  • 2 cinnamon quills
  • 1 star anise
  • 4 ripe pears, unpeeled, halved and cored

To serve:-

  • handfull coarsely chopped, roasted, slightly salted pecans
  • crème fraîche with scraped seeds from vanilla bean, or 1tsp vanilla extract

Method

1. Preheat oven to 240C/220C fan/500F/Gas mark 6. Combine maple syrup, sugar, butter, juices, zest, liquer, star anise and cinnamon in a roasting pan large enough to fit halved pears snugly in a single layer, and place in oven for butter and maple syrup to melt (1-2 minutes).

2. Meanwhile, halve pears and scoop out cores. I use a melon-baller. Stir maple syrup mixture in roasting pan to combine, add pears cut-side down and roast, turning halfway through cooking, until tender and caramelised (40-45 minutes, depending on firmness of the fruit; check every 15 minutes). Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.

3. Meanwhile, for vanilla crème fraîche, whisk ingredients in a bowl to soft peaks. Serve pears topped with vanilla crème fraîche and nuts! How easy was that?

One from the vaults: Postcard from London

Since moving to France I have made infrequent trips back to the UK. Far fewer than I originally anticipated. This was my annual flying visit to the dentist and hygienist. Yes, they have those in France too – well not hygienists. My dentist is a personal friend and, in return for the occasional dinner, takes great care of my teeth. Meanwhile, my hygienist is simply one of the best in the business and well worth every pound I pay her. I initially planned the trip to also include a visit to my middle sister to ooh and aah over her remodelling of the family home.  However, it’s over budget and over schedule so that’ll be next year’s flying visit.

When I left Nice, the weather was warm and the sun was shining. We arrived in Gatwick to overcast skies. I immediately wanted to return. My beloved headed to Heathrow and a flight to Milan. Yes, I know it’s only three hour drive up the road from us, but the London trip had been booked before the trip to Milan. He returned the following day in time for dinner with my dentist. Meanwhile, I headed to my brother in law’s. I usually stay with my youngest sister but she was in France!

Having lived in London for over 20 years, there’s very little I haven’t seen. Like all great cities, it’s best enjoyed on foot. Curiosity got the better of me and  I decided to visit my old stomping grounds of Bayswater, Notting Hill, Marylebone and Mayfair. While much has changed, many of my favourite spots are still reassuringly flourishing. The weather was overcast and decidedly chilly though everyone around me was resolutely holding onto summer in short-sleeved or sleeveless outfits. Footsore but not weary, late afternoon I travelled  south of the river to my dentist.

frog2

Once the condition of my teeth had been proclaimed stable – a good thing – we left by tube for dinner at The Frog, Adam Handling’s new restaurant in Whitechapel. It’s a wee bit tricky to locate but I enjoyed the scenic wander around E1 which has mushroomed since I left London. As I suspected, this is a hip, happening place favoured by the 25-40 crowd so we definitely increased the average age of the diners. The restaurant has a great vibe but more importantly an open kitchen and I was sitting in pole position. I left my beloved and my dentist to chatter about all matters dental while I observed what was going on in the kitchen.

image

imageMy dentist is a fish-eating vegetarian while I’m a fish eating vegan so (sadly) the great value tasting menu was hors course. Nonetheless, the kitchen was happy to adapt two courses to meet the strictures of my regime. I had charred broccoli to start with followed by octopus! The title of the former dish’s title belied its delicious flavour while the main course was the best octopus I’ve eaten and I’ve eaten A LOT of octopus this year.

frog-dinner

The boys greatly enjoyed all their three courses. The portions aren’t large so you can easily eat three courses. It was a delicious meal and The Frog got a huge thumbs up from all three of us.

cliveden

I spent the following day at Cliveden catching up with an old girlfriend who I first met back in 1980 while we were both training to be chartered accountants. How time has flown! While she’s visited me a couple of times in France, her job and a demanding pooch preclude regular visits. We enjoyed a glass (or two) of our favourite beverage in the bar overlooking the manicured gardens. I find the main house a wee bit overpowering, so we ate in The Grill. Fortunately the sun was shining so we could walk off our admittedly light lunch by strolling around the splendid grounds.

whitechapel

My beloved was unexpectedly available on Thursday lunchtime and expressed a desire to visit the Whitechapel Gallery. The gallery is just up the road from where I used to work and I often had off-site meetings there. My beloved is somewhat conservative in his tastes particularly when it comes to art. Would he be prepared to hang it on the wall or display it in the apartment? If the answer’s yes, then he likes it. However, much modern conceptual art is not for display in a domestic setting and it’s often intended to provoke. The gallery is small and having already been fed in its café, my beloved suffered the exhibits. I could tell he wasn’t won over when he likened it to the exhibition we saw in New York’s Guggenheim where a Colombian artist had poured concrete into a number of pieces of furniture, as a protest against the regime, not the furniture.

arnie1

As I took my leave, I was tempted to smuggle my nephew’s dog in my handbag and take him back to France. Indeed Arnie seemed keen to join me after I’d told him the weather was soooo much better though I suspect this was because he’d been abandoned at his grandparents while his owners were enjoying two weeks in Barbados.  Before going our separate ways, we had brunch at Waterloo before my beloved headed to Paddington and a train for Cardiff and I took a train to Gatwick for my homeward journey. The few days in London had been lovely, despite the weather, but I was happy to be back home.

homel

 

The Musette: real men do eat quiche

Quiche has an unfashionable reputation, and if it’s badly made or it’s been hanging around for too long then it loses its charm quickly. But if it’s made well and eaten fresh, it’s a dish that defines moreishness and a recipe that’s filled with techniques any cook can be proud to have mastered. It rightly deserves its status as a summer classic.

My beloved husband is fond of quiche and I’ll often whip one up when he’s so inclined. For picnics, I’ll make often individual ones, mouthfull size. Generally, I’ll use whatever’s hanging around in the fridge or cupboard but my beloved’s favourites by far are the classic quiche lorraine or cheese and onion. But whatever the filling, the pastry is always home made.

Ingredients (serves 4 hungry cyclists)

Pastry

  • 175g (1 cup + 1 tbsp) plain (all purpose) flour
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) very cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 large organic egg yolk

Filling

  • 125g (4 1/2oz) lardons, preferably smoked
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 70g (2 1/2 oz) gruyere cheese, finely grated
  • 250g  ( 1 cup) ricotta
  • 150ml  (1/2 cup) double (heavy) cream
  • 3 large organic eggs, and 1 egg yolk, well beaten
  • pinch ground nutmeg
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method

1. For the pastry, put flour, very cold butter, cut into pieces, egg yolk and 4 tsp very cold water into a food processor. Using the pulse button, process until the mix binds. You may need to add more water but do so sparingly.

2. Tip the pastry onto a lightly floured surface, gather into a smooth ball, then cover in cling film (plastic wrap) and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

3. Take the pastry out of the fridge and roll it out as thinly as you can. I generally do this between sheets of grease-proof (parchment) paper to avoid using more flour. Line a 23cm (9″) loose-bottomed, fluted flan tin, carefully easing the pastry into the base and flutes.

4. I generally don’t trim the edges until the pastry is cooked as it may shrink during cooking. Chill pastry case in the fridge for at least 10 minutes.

5. Put a baking sheet in the oven and pre-heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/(390F/fan 350F)/gas. Line pastry case with greaseproof paper, fill with dry beans/coins/whatever and bake on the hot sheet for 15 minutes.

6. Remove paper and filling and bake for further 4-5 minutes until the pastry is pale golden. Remove excess pastry with a rolling pin, going over the fluted edges. Take care not to end up with too many crumbs in the base! If you notice any small holes or cracks, patch up with pastry trimmings. You can make up to this point a day ahead.

7. While the pastry cooks, prepare the filling. Heat a small frying pan (skillet), tip in lardons and onions, fry for a couple of minutes. Drain off any liquid that comes out, then continue cooking until the lardons, but not the onions,  just start to colour, but aren’t crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels before scattering over the bottom of the pastry case.

8. Using a fork, beat the ricotta to slacken it then slowly beat in the double cream and grated gruyere cheese. Mix in the well beaten eggs. Season (you shouldn’t need much salt) and add a pinch of ground nutmeg. Pour three quarters of the filling into the pastry case.

9. Half-pull the oven shelf out and put the flan tin on the baking sheet. Quickly pour the rest of the filling into the pastry case – you get it right to the top this way. Then carefully push the shelf back into the oven.

10. Lower the oven to 190C/fan 170C(375F/fan 340F)/gas 5. Bake for about 25 mins, or until lightly golden and softly set (the centre should not feel too firm). The ricotta gives it an almost souffle appearance.

11. Let the quiche settle for 4-5 minutes, then remove from the tin. Serve freshly baked, although it’s also good cold.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The great thing about quiches is that you can make a tasty dish with pretty much anything using the quiche template. What about broccoli and blue cheese?

2. Individual mini-quiches are great for picnics and a great way to use up all those odds and ends in the fridge. You’re only limited by your imagination but don’t forget to choose flavourings and pairings that combine well together.

3. You can make a much less rich version of this quicke lorraine using milk rather than cream and ricotta. Or you can substitute creme-fraiche for the ricotta.

The Musette: salads galore

We were recently invited by friends to a BBQ and they wondered what they could cook me to eat. As usual, I advised I’d bring a couple of salads and some fresh fruit which everyone could enjoy. To be fair, they did grill some courgettes (zucchini) and bake some potates so I wouldn’t have gone completely hungry, plus my friend made the most divine “raw” vegan cake for dessert. Which reminds me, I must chase her up for the recipe.

Luckily for me the other guests were either not too enamoured of salad, or preferred to sink their teeth into the mound of cooked meats and sausages! This meant unusually I had some to bring home for the next few days – excellent news!

The first salad really doesn’t require a recipe. Thinly shave 1kg (2lbs) raw courgettes (zucchini) into a bowl, toss with the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon then add a handful of chopped basil, 5 tbsp virgin olive oil, seasoning to taste and voilà you have a deliciously fresh salad. How easy was that?

Ingredients – Quinoa Salad (serves 8-12)

  • 350g (2 cups) uncooked quinoa
  • 750ml (3 cups) filtered water
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 300g (8 cups) baby kale, stripped from stem and roughly chopped
  • 220g (1 cup) chopped pecans
  • 125g (1/2 cup) chopped dried cranberries
  • 2 medium apples peeled, cored, diced and tossed in freshly squeezed lemon juice

Lemon vinaigrette

  • 80ml (1/3 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 240ml (1 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • 80ml (1/3 cup) filtered water (optional)
  • 1 tsp runny honey
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 fat clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

Method

1. Soak and rinse the quinoa before cooking in a small saucepan, with water and salt. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer. Cook covered until the quinoa has absorbed all the liquid – about 10 minutes. Allow to cool, then fluff up with a fork.

2. While the quinoa is soaking prepare and chop all the other ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well to combine.

3. Whisk or (preferable) wizz all the vinagrette ingredients together in a liquidiser. Check seasoning.

4. Once the quinoa is cooler add it to salad bowl along with vinagrette and toss together to combine. Check seasoning.

5. Allow the flavours of the salad to combine, the kale to soften and the vinagrette to be absorbed before serving (1-2 hours in the fridge).

6. This salad will keep in the fridge in a sealed container for 4-5 days.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. You can substitute the quinoa with something like bulgar wheat, couscous or even lentils.

2. Likewise the pecans can be swapped for walnuts and the cranberries with raisins. Work with what you have to hand.

3. Serve it with orange rather than lemon vinaigrette.

4. TBH, most salads don’t really require a recipe, just ingredients and imagination. Combine stuff that you have in the fridge, garden and cupboards for a refreshing side dish or main meal. What about juicy melon, salami, black olives, freshly ground black pepper and fresh herbs. Or that Italian classic, but with the volume turned up by using burrata rather than mozzarella, mixed chopped tomatoes, black olives, basil and a drizzle of virgin olive oil. Feta cheese with watermelon and mint. Tomato salad with croutons, tabouleh………the possibilities are endless. Try to have an array of colours and textures.

 

The Musette: baked banana bonk bars

During the summer months we tend to ride early, leaving the Domaine at around 06:30am to avoid as much as possible the heat of the day. Consequently, breakfast is often tucked into our jersey pockets and nibbled as we ride.

These bars make use of that staple, the overripe banana. I have so many, I have to freeze tham. This is an excellent way to use them up, plus it’s probably the most flexible, fast and easy energy bar recipe on the planet. Really, it is! If you have bananas and a mixed selection of grains, rolled oats, seeds and nuts – you can make endless variations of this bar.

Aside from biking, they are perfect for training/racing or running and as a snack for you or the kids. Try the basic recipe or play around with the ingredients, it’s frankly impossible to do anything wrong – as long as you don’t forget them in the oven.

On the day of baking they can be crunchy on the outside, depending on how dry/wet your mixture is, but once they go in the fridge they soften up. Alright, let’s get to it.

Ingredients (makes 16 bars)

  • 90g (1 cup) rolled oats
  • 65g (2/3 cups) chopped nuts (walnuts/pecans etc.)
  • 30g (1/4 cup) shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 3tbsp chia seeds
  • 1/4tsp cinnamon/cardamon/ginger
  • 1/4tsp fine sea salt
  • 2 medium mashed ripe bananas
  • 125g (2 generous tbsp) nut butter
  • 50-75ml (4-5tbsp) maple syrup
  • 65g(1/4 cup) dark chocolate chips (optional)
  • 1-2 scoops vegan protein powder (optional)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/160ºC fan/gas mark 4 (350ºF/320ºF fan).

2. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

3. Mash the bananas in a separate bowl and combine with the maple syrup and nut butter. I tend to use a fork or potato masher for this. It’s much faster. The banana mash can have small chunks – it’s cool.

4. Combine the dry and wet ingredients using a spatula.

5. Taste your mixture and season with salt and/or spices.

6. Line your chosen baking tin with greaseproof (parchment) paper and spread out the mixture evenly about 2.5cm (1 inch) thick. Use a wet rubber spatula to even it out on the top, if there are any oats or bits sticking up, they can burn, so make sure it’s a smooth as possible.

7. Bake the mixture until it is golden and firm, generally around 20-25 minutes. Let it cool down before cutting it into bars.

8. Keep them in a airtight container in the fridge for about a week, or in the freezer for up to three months.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. If you decide to add protein powder, and the mixture is too dry, add an extra 1/2 a banana.

2. You can substitute or leave out

  • Rolled oats with any rolled grain
  • Nuts with any type of nuts or seeds
  • Maple syrup with honey or date syrup – or leave it out
  • Chocolate with any dried fruit
  • Spices – go crazy, mix them up or leave them out or use finely zested citrus

3. Basically the most important thing is the mashed bananas, chia and grains to absorb moisture, the rest of the ingredients can be whatever you want or have to hand.

4. If you are using them for your training rides or runs, wrap them individually in cling film or greaseproof (parchment) paper.

5. I pop the wrapped ones in the freezer, and just take a couple out when needed. They will defrost in no time and they can also be eaten from frozen – I have done that many times.

The Musette: roasted veggie burger

Who doesn’t love burgers? Exactly! I’ve even posted about the French love of le Hamburger. However, as a vegan I’m honestly not keen on those made from meat substitutes or soya, which I can’t eat. No, I want a flavourful burger which tastes of veggies.

Note: this is more of a method of making veggie burgers than a recipe.

Ingredients

  • 1 medium red onion, peeled
  • 100g (4 oz) mixed mushrooms
  • 100g (4 oz) sourdough bread or similar
  • 200g (8 oz ) cooked beans or chickpeas
  • handful fresh herbs
  • 1 carrot, peeled
  • 100g (4 oz) cooked spinach or similar
  • 1 fat clove garlic
  • 1tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Place all the ingredients (except the beans or chickpeas) in the food processor and whiz until fine. Pulse in the  beans or chickpeas, season lightly with sea salt and black pepper.

2. Divide the mixture into 6 fat patties, roughly 3cm (1 “) thick then place on an oiled baking tray and place in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up.

3. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/fan 180ºC/400ºF/gas 6.

4. Take out of the fridge, spray the patties with olive oil, then roast for 25 minutes, or until dark and crispy. Don’t forget to warm or toast the rolls for the last few minutes.

5. Meanwhile, get your desired accompaniements ready.

6. Halve the warm rolls and layer up those bad boys however your heart desires. You’ll note I only use one side of the bun per patty and layer on my vegan mayo, tomato, cucumber, sprouts, gherkins and spicy tomato and chilli jam.

7. Serve with oven-roasted, skin-on sweet potato chips and some home-made coleslaw.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. I typicallly make these with chickpeas, blackbeans or haricot beans and a mix of wild mushrooms for their lovely umami flavour. Please do not use white button mushrooms.

2. I tend to add whatever vegetables I have to hand, ensuring, particularly in the case of spinach or courgettes (zucchini) that I have squeezed as much water out of them as possible otherwise the patties will to be too wet. You need to aim for cake dropping consistency.

3. Add whatever fresh or dried herbs and spices you like. Typically, if I make the patties with black beans, I’ll make them much spicier adding smoked paprika, chillies etc

4. You can of course fry these but wherever possible I try to eat less fried food so prefer to roast them in the oven.

5. These are also delicious cold and used as a sandwich filling.

One from the vaults: Back from the Basque country

Usually at this time of year we’re just heading back from the Basque Country having watched one of my favourite one-day bike races, the Clasica. We missed out last year while we were enjoying our #adventuredownunder so i was particularly looking forward to spending a week at Akelarre – a restaurant that’s now become a hotel too – and watching some bike racing. Hey ho, there’s always next year. Meanwhile, here’s one I prepared earlier…….

I’m back from a number of days of unintended blog silence. Although the hotel we stayed at in San  Sebastián had free WiFi, I decided not to take my notepad with me. On these short trips, I really want my beloved to have a break. If I start using my notepad he’ll get out his laptop and start working. I do allow him to remain in contact via his phone but somehow that seems less intrusive.

I had so enjoyed my trip last year to the Basque country that I was looking for any excuse for another visit. The Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian was happy to oblige. It was originally planned as a solo trip, while my beloved was in the Far East, but, when his trip was delayed for a couple of weeks, he decided to join me.

I flew from Nice to Bordeaux, took the bus to Bordeaux station and then a train to San Sebastian. The hotel was a 15 minute walk from the station and within sight of the start and finish line of the race. I could have waited for my beloved, who was going to fly into Bordeaux later that day, but experience has taught me never to wait for him unless there’s absolutely no alternative. In any event his flight was late and, still suffering from jet lag, he decided to stay overnight in an airport hotel and drive up the next morning. Meanwhile, I spent many hours happily wandering around San Sebastian enjoying it’s architecture, sights, sounds and smells. This place is foodie heaven.

On our trip last year we had made the pilgrimage to Arzak, a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars and rated 8th best restaurant in the world.  About three months before our trip it took me endless emails to finally secure a table one lunch time. This year it took just one. I always say when you can easily get a table in a city’s top restaurant, you know it’s enjoying tough times. Initially, unsure whether I would be able to secure a booking at Arzak, I also tried to book tables at two of the city’s other 3 starred restaurants. Again, there was absolutely no problem in obtaining a table. Yes, I know three x 3 starred restaurants is way over the top. I agree. I cancelled one of them.

Not only were there gastronomic delights in store but I found out  Bon Jovi were in town Friday evening for the penultimate date of their 2010/11 World Tour. There was no problem in buying tickets which ranged in price from Euros 20 (standing) to Euros 275 (Diamond VIP Circle). Now I’m not sure exactly what you got for your money for the top priced ticket but, at the very least, I’d want a night with Jon Bon Jovi himself. I plumped for tickets costing Euros 60, allocated seats. It’s official, I’m old. This is the first concert I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended plenty, where I’ve deliberately opted for a seat.

Despite, or because of, his Garmin, my beloved arrived in San Sebastián, minus his jacket, which he’d left in the airport hotel bedroom, and with barely enough time to make our lunch date at Arzak. It was just as good as we remembered. It’s not a restaurant that you could eat at regularly because there’s a real sense of drama and theatre when you eat there which would be lost with regular visits. We had a mind-bogglingly fantastic meal (again) and left feeling truly sated. We’d work off those calories at that evening’s Bon Jovi concert.

After a long walk along one of San Sebastian’s beaches, cooling our feet off in the warm water lapping the sand, we drove over to the football stadium to see Bon Jovi. The boys didn’t disappoint, despite it being the end of a very lengthy tour, belting out 27 songs from their repertoire with gusto. I did however think that in the big screen close ups they looked tired, too many nights with the Diamond VIP circle perhaps?

Saturday heralded the main event and we were handily poised to soak up the pre-race atmosphere which is very relaxed and familiar, not at all like the Tour de France. The event is obviously well supported by the Basque riders who earned the loud, vocal support of the crowd. Equally well received were such luminaries as Sylvain Chavanel, Frank Schleck and Philippe Gilbert. This is an event typically won by an in form rider off the back of the Tour de France and merry go round of criteriums. Indeed, Phil Gil had flown in on a private jet in the early hours. Nonetheless, he looked as fresh as a daisy and once the orange led peloton had reeled in the early escapees, Sammy Sanchez launched his offensive to escape from the Belgian flag clad Walloon.

Sunday heralded a visit to another 3 starred establishment, Akelarre, situated beyond Monte Igueldo, with a panoramic view of the sea. This was pure Basque cuisine ratched up several notches. Again, it was a highly enjoyable meal in very relaxing surroundings. However, for me, the highlight was a guided tour of the kitchen by the chef and restaurant owner, Pedro Subijana.

While we’re heading back to the Basque country in early September to watch the stages of the Vuelta near Bilbao, I am already plotting my return to San Sebastian next year. I am hoping to combine the Tour of the Basque Country (early April) with a cookery course in Basque cuisine. As a consequence, I have been trying my hand at a few words in Basque. I just need the Basque made simple or Basque for idiots course, then I’ll be all set.