It’s a week into 2008 already and Andrew and I are back at work today. After two quiet and very low-key holiday celebrations here in Belgium, this year we finally celebrated in a big way.
After our Cornford-Matheson Multi-Cultural Mingler, we decided not to splurge on a Christmas tree this year. There were two reasons (other than the fact that real trees are ridiculously expensive here compared to home). The first was that we decided not to do presents this year, and the second was because we were going to be away for most of the holidays. No presents? Awww, how sad. Ok not really, because our present to each other was going to La Benjamine for the New Year for a gastronomic week! But I’m getting ahead of myself…
As usual I decided to cook a huge Christmas dinner. This time, however, we actually had someone to share it with. One of Andrew’s colleagues from India was staying alone in Belgium over the holidays so we invited him to help us celebrate in Canadian style.
Nihar arrived with wine and mango pickle (a spicy little number that I discovered was great on leftover turkey sandwiches) and we had a feast. This year in addition to the enormous free-range turkey, we also enjoyed: apricot and hazelnut stuffing, lemon and parmesan stuffing balls wrapped in Parma ham, grilled parsnips, celeriac and carrots with honey glaze, port cranberry sauce, red wine gravy, and for dessert, Bailey’s Irish Cream truffles and Andrew’s lemon sorbet. Yes, we had a lot of leftovers.
On Friday, following Christmas, Andrew and I got up early and jumped in the car to head for La Benjamine. It was a long day in the car but we were greeted with wine and aperitif ready and waiting when we arrived. We had had a few hints about what the gastronomic week would entail, but we didn’t expect such a full and wonderful week. (Ok, we expected it to be wonderful of course but it was ever better than we thought.) After one of Cedric’s incredible meals (and possibly a wee bit of wine) we went to bed to sleep for an early start the next morning.
Saturday we were up and off to the Pau market where we spent the morning exploring and being introduced to Dawn and Cedric’s favourite producers. Andrew and I love this market and were pleased to discover that most of the places that we had shopped at on our last trip, were the ones recommended by Dawn and Cedric.
After the market we were in for a lunch treat. We were all booked for lunch at Chez Ruffet, a Michelin two star restaurant, just outside of Pau. While Chez Ruffet is quite pricy for dinner, they offer a lunch menu for a very reasonable price. Andrew and I had taken advantage of this in November and really enjoyed the experience. (How often do we get to enjoy a one Michelin star, let alone two?) Because Cedric and Dawn know the proprietor, we had a bit of a special menu waiting for us and everything was simply delicious.
Normally, after a lunch like the one we had a Chez Ruffet, we would have skipped out on supper, but this was gastronomic week and there would be no skipping out on food. One of our fellow guests was celebrating his birthday that day and in true La Benjamine style, we had some feasting to do. After all, what do you follow a four course lunch with, if not a five course supper?
Sunday was cooking day for the guests. Under Cedric’s guidance we were put into teams and spent the day preparing our evening meal. It was fun but also hard work. It gave us even more insight into all of the work Cedric and Dawn do to feed their guests everyday. Here were seven guests (with much help from Cedric) doing the work that Cedric and Dawn normally do by themselves each day.
I was on the starter team which I was very pleased about because we got to make pasta from scratch. I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a pasta maker ever since I bought Jamie’s Italy last year and now I’m definitely going to take the plunge. We made hand-made ravioli with a spinach and ricotta filling that was served in a spinach Velouté (basically a creamy soup). There were also seared scallops on top which I sadly had to pass on because of an allergy, but they looked divine.
Andrew was on main course duty and prepared a salmon and perch roulade (roll) with sage pesto as well as a celeriac and potato pure, roasted red peppers and baked tomatoes. Everything turned out perfect and I’ll be expecting him to make it again sometime.
Desert was Pain Perdu (Lost Bread) with caramelized fruit and home-made ice cream. It was also as good as it sounds. There were no major injuries (Andrew cut himself on a chipped glass while washing up) and no major disasters (although I suck at ladling of all things) and I was able to photograph each course and when the photos are ready I’ll share them with you.
Monday we got to sleep late in anticipation on our late night. We were also strongly advised not to eat as we had a feast awaiting us for supper. Well, what do you do at La Benjamine when you can’t eat? Why, you drink of course… Monday afternoon was spent wine tasting. First we went to a winery we hadn’t visited before. It was interesting (as there was lots of construction and expansion going on) and the wines were good, but it was obvious that the venture was more of a business than a passion. Fair enough – but Andrew and I were already spoiled by meeting two of Cedric and Dawn’s favourite producers in the past. Our second stop was much more interesting for me as we visited Jean-Louis at Domaine Nigri.
Jean-Louis and his family own the vines around La Benjamine and it was his crew who I was fortunate enough to photograph in November. I passed on a CD of my favourite images to him and he seemed very pleased. He showed us around and of course let us taste his magnificent wines. As a special treat, he allowed us to taste the in-progress wine that I had photographed being picked the month before. What an honour! It really helped me finish off the photo essay by being able to shoot the almost finished product.
We arrived back at La Benjamine to see Dawn’s stunningly set table. Her decorating skills amaze (and inspire) me. She has an eye for details that just beg to be photographed. Photos done, it was time for more wine… (My liver is still in recovery). Cedric brought out three very special bottles from his cellar and we played “name that wine.” Of course I had next to no clue but it was fun to guess (and sample). We nibbled on aperitifs to keep up our stamina and prepare our bellies for what they were about to behold.
Finally we staggered to the table for dinner. The first course: A green salad and Cedric’s own incredible foie gras (you’ll notice the repetition of words like incredible and amazing in the following description… sorry, one runs out of glowing adjectives after a while. Also the names are much prettier in French but frankly I could hardly remember everything we ate without the pictures (it was memorable honestly there was just so much of it over the week that it all sort of blurs… could be the wine consumption had something to do with it too) let alone all of the proper names… Sorry Cedric). Second Course: Lobster with a lobster reduction and spinach. Third Course: Lemon Sorbet. Forth Course: Lamb Chops with spatzle, artichoke purée, and peas. Fifth Course: The famous La Benjamine cheese plate and the Final Course: (which we ate in 2008) Mi-Cuit au Chocolate (a chocolate cake that is gooey and oozy inside and my absolute favourite dessert) and chocolate sorbet. Of course there was more wine… and champagne… and an interesting English ritual which involved throwing poor confused Laurent (cute, French, young and single… ladies apply to CheeseWeb if you’re interested…) out into the cold with a block of wood and some scotch and us running outside and holding hands while singing… yeah… waaaaay to much alcohol.
Then there was a lot of dancing. Andrew and I don’t (read can’t) dance but with that much wine one finds a hidden rhythm… or more likely stops caring.
The next morning instead of sleeping it off like sensible people (because by now we’ve demonstrated that we are far from sensible) we were up with the sun and off to the mountains. It was an absolutely gorgeous day and Andrew and I went skiing for the first time in years. It was a real highlight and skiing on a real mountain with incredible views all around is something I will never forget (and hopefully will be able to relive soon).
In the afternoon we tried skijoring. Basically we were towed around by horses while on our skis. Although we were told it was suitable for beginners it was a bit nerve wracking as there were a lot of really steep hills. Our horse was a bit stubborn and holding on was definitely hard on the arms. It was fun and I’m glad I tried it but I don’t think I’ll be taking it up as a hobby anytime soon.
Exhausted, we arrived back at La Benjamine to a fabulous supper prepared by Dawn – duck spring rolls and a melt in your mouth beef cheek stew… We totally collapsed into bed that night and slept like logs.
Our final morning we slept late and took our time getting ready to go. We decided to only drive half-way back to Belgium so we could take our time. It was a good choice as we were able to spend a bit of down time with Dawn and Cedric before we left. While having a full house at La Benjamine is always fun, it’s nice to relax a bit too. We’ve been spoiled by having Dawn and Cedric to ourselves most of the time so it was a nice way to end our week.
So here we are back at the grind. 2008 will mark our third anniversary here in Belgium. We have no idea what the year will hold for us but hopefully it will be a good one. In any event, it was a great way to end 2007 and begin 2008.
I hope you had a great New Year too!