By Veronica

Magical mystery tour

S's birthday today, so I had to book a special restaurant. It's getting harder to find ones we haven't tried -- I looked at a couple of possibilities but didn't fancy their menus. Then I remembered the restaurant at the bottom of the four châteaux at Lastours. It has a very good reputation but we've never been there in the 25 years we've lived here. It's an hour's drive away but that hasn't stopped us trying other places just as far.

Anyway it's in a part of the Aude that we almost never visit. S volunteered to drive there, despite the 2-hour rally we went on three years ago, and I picked an obscure cross-country route that would keep him baffled up to the last minute -- as indeed it transpired. We hit a couple of snags on the way -- getting stuck behind some massive agricultural machinery for 5 km, getting a tour of Laure Minervois courtesy of Google Maps, and with just a few km to go being flagged down by a desperate-looking woman who turned out to need help map reading. Still, it was a lovely day, beautiful scenery, and we had plenty of time, so we arrived on the dot of 1 pm.

It's one of those very smart restaurants where they are constantly changing plates and cutlery. Strangely, instead of the usual waiter technique of elegantly lining plates up their arms in defiance of gravity, they had special stands for their trays and carefully removed one item at a time from the table to the tray, often using both hands. Maybe they are very clumsy?.

Anyway, the food: see extra for one of the amuse-bouches, with chervil leaves for scale. It was tiny!  The three actual courses were a bit bigger than this but we certainly weren't over-fed. The food was fine but not nearly as good as the amazing restaurant in Sort. The dessert was particularly disappointing, not that it wasn't nice, but diced strawberries in a fruit coulis, some bits of rhubarb cooked al dente, three almond tuiles, and a scoop of blackcurrant sorbet involve zero patisserie skills. I could have done this myself without breaking a sweat.

Still, it was good to finally try it, and all three wines that S was served with his meal were excellent and perfectly matched to the food (I had sips of each). One of the whites was so good that when we found the domaine was almost on the way home, we decided to pop in -- though it seemed unlikely to be open on a Sunday. So it was another rural wander along increasingly narrow roads, me driving this time. We were out of luck -- the neighbour told us the vigneron was away for the weekend -- but now we know where it is and it's not far from home.

Oh, the chimney? There was a gold and arsenic mine in this area till about 20 years ago, and there are still a lot of industrial buildings. And despite the amount of time since it closed, soil and water are still so polluted you can't eat vegetables grown in your own garden. The restaurant does have a kitchen garden (!), but we noted that all the plants were in containers raised off the ground.

So lunch took up a large chunk of the day. And we're going to need to eat a bit more this evening!

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