By AA Lil
An aimless cycle ride along the towpath of the Canal du Midi yielded a wonderful sight.
In the golden light of the first weekend of September a long, long table of friends having, what had the potential for, a long, long lunch.
There were yellow parasols and a fluttering canopy of trees. Women in flowery aprons bustled to and fro with carafes of wine. Panama hats nodded and glasses chinked “Santé”.
The meal was in the canal-side garden of a traditional restaurant, right beside the lock, so the convivial chatter was accompanied by the gushing splish splash of water.
Boats edged by, then disappeared gradually from view as if descending in a dumb waiter. Just as you thought they’d been sucked to oblivion down a Black Hole, they bobbed back up again. Yoo Hoo!
If Rick Stein himself had been perched on top of a barge and accordion music was playing, it could not have been a more perfect scene and one that would get be-slippered viewers in Purley leaping up from their Fray Bentos pies, to book a flight from Stansted and an appointment with the local immobilier.
We lurked for a bit, but obviously no invitation to join was forthcoming (selfish) so we snuck in and booked a table for ourselves that very evening.
We rode back to L’Ecluse again later, as the sun was setting over the Montagnes Noires and rain clouds played Hide & Seek on the edge of the inky, ripped paper horizon.
We settled at a table nearest the canal and ordered aperitifs which arrived with a little dish of slick, emerald luque olives. Because there’s no flies on us – well only a couple, I think it was my Occitanie honey shower gel – we covered all bases in the pursuit of not missing out on anything. We asked for one of each menu – a €26 and a €34, with the idea of sharing everything, unless mine was nicer.
You can’t go wrong with a prawn cocktail. You know where you are with one o’ them. This one had avocado, a tangy Marie Rose and four fat, pink crevettes peering over the top of a sundae glass with their beady eyes, just to check on what was occurring.
The other starter was a tartare of coquilles, chopped, herbed, piled and hiding a creamy centre of fromage frais. Both plates were garnished with grinning slices of sweet melon.
The other thing you can’t go wrong with is surf and turf, which also provides the excuse to swap to red wine. Our posher steak was a tournedos with mushroom sauce. The other was a filet. Both were served with a square of custardy vegetable omelette and a second neat slab of root vegetable cake.
The tournedos was extremely soft and tender with a perfect stripe of deep pink through the centre. The filet was slightly less tender, but tasty and caramelised on the outside.
We shared the cheese and must have inadvertently spilt the carafe of wine as it seemed to have disappeared – or maybe it evaporated – or it was those nosy prawns – either way a fresh one took its place. (€4 per half litre.)
Lightning flashed above us and our very charming host, Julien, tried to considerately herd everyone inside. But the few splashes of rain were quite refreshing so some of us stayed put.
The shower had stopped by the time our desserts emerged. There was a cold limoncello soufflé and a salted caramel chocolatiness.
One tiny cup of coffee later and we were ready to hit the towpath. Literally. Maybe that second carafe was a mistake when you have to cycle home on gravel in the pitch black with only one set of lights and a head torch.
Anyway, we’d had a lovely, unhurried evening, with a welcoming patron, good food and a pretty setting – a celestial light show thrown in for added romance. Rick Stein would have waxed lyrical.
PS L’Ecluse has a paella and music night on the 21st September.
L’Ecluse, 2 Ecluse d’Ognon, 34210 Olonzac
04 68 75 37 75
By AA Lil