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  • French Cassoulet

    December is the start of the ski season in France and the Alps in particular are a favourite destination for ski lovers. However, the French have a secret which is less well known here in the UK and that is if you are considering a skiing holiday, maybe you would enjoy your break in the Pyrenees.

    The Pyrenees are to be found in the Midi-Pyrénées, one of the largest regions of France which has eight departments – Ariège, Aveyron, Gers, Haute Garonne, Hautes Pyrénées, Lot, Tarn and Tarn et Garonne.

    Why would you choose the Pyrenees rather than the Alps? Well, for one thing they have more snow than the Alps and this is a factor well worth taking into consideration. It is also a cheaper option as it is a fraction of the price for a skiing holiday compared to the Alps yet the piste is set in beautiful countryside in an area much less crowded. They have twenty five ski resorts, also in the Aveyron department and the season is often open from the end of November until April.

    From beginners to the most experienced skiers there is something for everyone and family holidays are fun and exciting. The weather is great in winter due to the proximity to the Atlantic coast with frequent falls of fresh snow and beautiful blue skies making it so pleasant and welcoming.

    The people here are warm and friendly and have a lovely southern sing-song accent. They are also big rugby fans and this is what my rugby loving husband thinks is so special about this area! They are very passionate about their rugby which in some ways is more of a culture than a sport.

    They love to socialise and getting together for a party or a good meal with friends and family is very important and part of the culture as in many regions of France.

    If you travel about two hours away from the Pyrennes you will arrive at Toulouse the capital and the largest city in the area with about 439,000 inhabitants.  It also has the third largest university in France and is said to have a most excellent quality of life.

    In December of course the traditional Christmas market with its little wooden huts is to be found in Place du Capitole in Toulouse and is worth a visit for its atmosphere, roasting chestnuts, mulled wine and the most beautiful Christmas gifts.

    You can be in the midst of this buzzing city with all it has to offer and yet you are only twenty minutes away from the most beautiful countryside. Of course you also have the Canal du Midi crossing Toulouse which is one of the Heritage sites and a trip on a canal barge here is wonderfully relaxing or if you prefer, a bike ride is another option along its pathways.

    No holiday in France can be had without good food and this region is no exception, for the food is truly wonderful with all the local produce available from the simplest yet tastiest of soups such as garbure (a soup of fresh greens and vegetables) to aligot (a cheesy potato dish), mountain cheeses, the finest fois gras, AOC mutton and the most heart warming of dishes the famous cassoulet which was once the staple diet of the region.

    The cassoulet was a dish that the farmers’ wives would make for the farm workers and it would last all week for the family with the addition of more ingredients and simmered in the oven by the fire. You will be able to sample this traditional French dish in many places in the region and it is really satisfying so you will probably not want to eat a heavy dessert following it.

    If you are longing to take a break for the Christmas holidays what better place to be than in France in the Midi-Pyrénées. There are many places that will welcome you for the season or for any of the winter months, for long and short periods, you will find them at www.frenchconnections.co.uk.

    With this in mind I thought that you may like a taste of your own Cassoulet using the recipe here which is not quite as authentic but is very tasty none the less. I believe that the traditional recipe, if indeed there ever was an exact recipe, did not have tomatoes in it but here they are included and give it a good colour. I think the main thing about this dish is that you will need lots of patience as it is so much better when it has been simmering for a long period of time, however, you will love the aroma in your kitchen as it is cooking and it is well worth waiting for.

    Cassoulet

    Ingredients

    • 1 lb (about half a kg) haricot beans, soaked overnight
    • 8 oz (225gms) garlic sausage
    • 1 lb (about half a kg) shoulder of mutton or lamb
    • 4 oz (125gms) streaky bacon
    • 2 cloves of garlic
    • 1 med onion with 2 cloves stuck in it
    • Small bunch of parsley
    • 2 fresh tomatoes de-seeded
    • 4 oz (125gms) breadcrumbs
    • 2 oz goose fat or oil if you prefer (enough to brown the meat)

    And:

    8oz (225gms) of preserved goose (confit d' oie) or if you cannot obtain this (from speciality food stores/or online) you can add more lamb or mutton, pork or even more sausage or a small duck! Use whatever you prefer or can obtain. The preserved goose does make a difference but it will still be fabulous!


    Method

    • • Prepare the haricot beans by draining them, then place in a large saucepan with cold water and boil vigorously for 10 minutes. (instructions are usually on the packet). This is where I cheat and buy the canned beans!
    • Drain the beans and place in a heavy bottomed stockpot or marmite. Add enough cold water or to cover and bring to the boil, then lower to simmer.
    • Simmer for about 1 hour.
    • Now melt the goose fat in a heavy bottomed pan and cook the diced meat until it is brown on all sides.
    • Add the meat, the sausage, the tomatoes and the parsley tied in a bunch to the beans.
    • Add the onion stuck with the cloves and put a lid on the pot.
    • Simmer for about 2 hours.
    • Chop the garlic and streaky bacon together and add to the beans.
    • Cook for another 1 - 2 hours.

    Now it is almost ready to serve.

    • If it has thickened too much, add a little more water.
    • Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the cassoulet and put in a pre-heated moderate oven and cook for another 30 minutes.
    • As the breadcrumbs turn brown and crisp, break them up and allow the juices to mix in with them.
    • Allow the breadcrumbs to crisp again and serve immediately.

     Bon Appétit and a Joyeux Noël

  • The breathtaking Pic du Midi de Bigorre in the Pyrenees. Photo Friday 11 June 2010

    A Pyreneen mountain summit in the Hautes Pyrenees. A savage, snow covered solitary place, where wolves howl eerily in the blizzards. Or so Louis XIV believed.

  • The Midi Pyrénées - perfect for ski and summer holidays

    During the winter, the ski slopes of the Pyrenees mountains are a fantastic, more 'French' and cheaper alternative to the more popular Alps. Stay in a mountain village or nearby countryside and combine sightseeing and culture with winter sports. In summer, the peaks and passes become a paradise for walkers, cyclists and fishing enthusiasts. The more adventurous can try rock climbing or white water rafting while, if you prefer holidays of a gentler persuasion, you can just relax with a glass of wine and the local cuisine and enjoy the majestic scenery and mountain air.

    The Midi Pyrénées spreads right across South western France, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and includes the departments of Ariège, Aveyron, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lot, Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne. All except the Hautes-Pyrénées department owe their name to the river that crosses them.

    The Midi-Pyrénées is bordered to both the north and south by mountains, and the Pyrenees form a natural frontier with Spain, so a bonus to staying in the area is a chance to cross into Spain to explore. The Pyrenees National Park is one of the seven national parks in France and there are also three regional nature parks. The caves of Padirac, in the Lot, are considered to be one of Europe’s greatest geological curiosities and the Ariège also has an abundance of caves that tell stories about the life of Homo sapiens.

    RocamadourRocamadour, in the Lot, is among the most visited places of interest in France, second only to Mont Saint-Michel, and anyone interested in insects and nature will love Micropolis in the Aveyron. If you prefer flying objects, the Cité de l’Espace, the space experience in Toulouse, is a must-see and, of course, Lourdes welcomes visitors from the world over.

    There’s a fabulous feast of food here, from foie gras to rare truffles, from Rocamadour goat’s cheese to Quercy lamb. Cep mushrooms are found in the undergrowth in autumn and bryony along the paths in spring. Cassoulet, aligot (mashed potatoes with cheese), garbure (soup with cabbage and confit of goose), stockfish and gâteau à la broche (spit-roasted cake) are just some of the traditional recipes that you may sample.

    Toulouse-Blagnac airport is the fourth airport of France and has connections to all parts of the UK and most of Europe, including cheap airlines, and you can drive via Paris on the A71 and A20 which runs straight through the middle of the Midi- Pyrénées. The journey is approx 850km from Calais to the northern end of the Midi Pyrenees and will take around 8-9 hours depending on length of stops.

    See gorgeous holiday homes and more information in our complete guide to the Midi-Pyrénées

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • We're excited about the Tour de France!

    The 2012 Tour de France rolls into action on 30th June. We always love this dramatic cycling event, with its opportunity to see regions of France and their varied landscapes – but this year there’s a bigger buzz than ever in the UK as British star Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky are going into the race as favourites. Could Britain win its first ever Tour de France? The team also includes sprinter Mark Cavendish, who we'll be seeing in the London Olympics Road Race.

    Liège in Belgium is the starting point on Saturday 30th and this leads into a series of very accessible stages in Northern France, taking in Boulogne, Abbeville, Normandy’s cathedral city of Rouen and then down to Epernay in champagne country. The route then dives through eastern France and through the Alps, before going across to the Pyrenees, along the Mediterranean coast and returning through the centre of the country to the grand finale in Paris on Sunday 22nd July.

    You can follow the race live on the ITV4 channel – but why not hop across and take in all the excitement for real? We’ve put together a comprehensive mini-guide to the Tour with links to accommodation in all the crucial areas, making it really easy for you to plan your getaway, even at the last minute. Stay in a B&B or your own holiday home, watch the race, get inspired, go cycling yourself at a gentler pace and take in some of the beauty of the French countryside and coast in early summer. Keen cyclist but can't make the Tour? Browse our selection of cycling holidays in France.

  • Winter breaks with cities, beaches and skiing in the Pyrénées mountains

    PyreneesMtCanigou

    Want to take a winter break in France where you can relax, explore cities, walk on beaches and enjoy a couple of days’ skiing in beautiful mountains? Our tip is to head for the Pyrénées Mountains in the south west.

    Many holiday properties accessible to popular destinations like Perpignan, Céret and the pretty Mediterranean port of Collioure are also within reach of the Pyrénées slopes.  To find out more, browse our villas, farmhouses and gites in Pyrénées-Orientales.

    ElCouloumer

    One great example is El Couloumer,  a year-round villa in Arboussols in Catalan Country, surrounded by vineyards and woodland. Owners Toni and Michael Howarth love winter here because they can have breakfast in sunshine on the terrace looking at snow capped mountains, then drive to one of nine different ski resorts within an hour, spend about four hours skiing and come home to a blazing log fire in time for dinner.

     Howarth147443 2

    “The ski resorts open in November and skiing is usually great in February and March – even up to Easter. We are happy to offer our villa to holidaymakers during the winter months so they can share all that we love about the area. It’s a 30 minute drive to Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast and the beaches of Canet, Argeles and St. Cyprien are 50 minutes away. So visitors can combine skiing, beaches, lakes and even exploring Spain.”

    El Couloumer is featured in our latest article in French Property News magazine, along with some tips for holiday property owners in this area. The November ski issue is on sale now in print and digital editions.

  • Year-round holidays in the mountains of Ariège

    The little known region of Ariège epitomises everything we love about France. The landscape is beautiful and varied, with majestic mountains, ancient forests and abundant wildlife; people live in tune with the land and a traditional culture has been proudly maintained for centuries; festivals and celebrations abound; the food is delicious and there are outdoor activities to enjoy all year round.

    Ariège, our region of the month, is located in the very south of France, next to tiny Andorra. It’s at the centre of the Pyrenees mountains and the highest peaks are visible all the way from Toulouse.  The mountains make for a climate that rarely gets too hot, so you can enjoy all the light and atmosphere of southern France without extreme summer heat, making it great for walking, cycling, climbing, fishing, golf, skiing in winter and sightseeing in any month of the year.

    Although the feel here is of a remote land that time has almost forgotten, travel is actually quite easy. Several European airlines fly to Toulouse and Perpignan and the drive from Calais to the local town of Foix is about 10 hours.

    Ancient cave paintings reveal a very long history of habitation and cultivation in this region, which was a centre for the Cathars and provided mountain escape routes during World War II. Modern residents are proud of their history and mindful of conservation. A few bears still roam the forest, marmots can be seen and butterflies abound. People also love a celebration.

    One of the most famous festivals is Jazz at Mirepoix. It’s at Easter this year, running from 19th to 21st April and is not confined to indoor concerts, but embraces a New Orleans style parade through the streets and arcades of the town, with a fringe programme including gypsy jazz.

    Le Cazal 159163 MirepoixIn July there’s a festival of art creators which is now repeated in October for the benefit of the many autumn visitors to the region.  The famous Apple festival takes place in September – and all year round there are markets where you can sample locally produced organic cheeses, sausages, breads and many more delicious goodies.

    Our Ariège holiday lets are at beautifully restored farmhouses and stone cottages that really reflect the character of the region and give you maximum freedom to get out and explore.

    Le Cazal Ariege 159163

    Typical is Le Cazal, a farmhouse and converted barn with pool shown in the photo, along with views captured by the owner of Ariège scenery and the town of Mirepoix, which is just a few minutes’ drive away. Take a look at our complete guide to Ariège, with links to all our holiday lets in the region.