An Irish Chef in France
Euro-Toques chef Martin Dwyer, much missed in Ireland since he and his wife Sile sold their eponymous restaurant in Waterford and moved to France. They now live in the Languedoc, where they take guests - and feed them very well.
This month Martin takes time out from his enjoyment of food and drink and, instead, revels in the great engineering feat that is the The Canal du Midi - and the entertainment that it can provide.
We are lucky here in the Languedoc to be close to a world heritage site, and one of the most beautiful waterways in France; The Canal du Midi. This canal has quite a heritage, it was long mooted as a short cut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean which would cut off the long voyage around Spain, which routinely took a full month, and also avoid the Barbary pirates which were adept at picking off unwary voyagers through the Straits of Gibraltar.
In the sixteenth century the work had been started when, based on a plan by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci, a canal was built between Bordeaux and Toulouse. In 1662 Jean Paul Riquet, a local man from Beziers, set about solving the huge problems of providing water for the rest of the canal’s journey to the Med, which he did by building vast reservoirs of water in the Montagnes Noires. He completed the whole immense project in 1692, an incredible 300 plus years ago, and it is still running along its 240 kilometre length successfully today.
In the 1830’s as horse power took over from sail the banks were planted with Plane trees, which give shade to the horses as well as stabilizing the banks with their roots - and also gave the entire length a green dappled beauty. These trees are unfortunately in trouble today as they have developed a Wilt Disease, brought over from the USA in ammunition boxes during World War 2 and it is reckoned that all of the trees will have to be replaced in the next 20 to 30 years.
The canal is now mainly used for tourism with cabin cruisers heading up and down through the locks during the summer, small electric boats for hire between the locks and the tow paths make great cycle tracks. Near us in Fonserune, close to Beziers, there is a series of seven locks where it is a Sunday treat for the citizens of the town to watch the unseamanlike antics of the hirers of the Canal barges as they struggle up and down these locks.
In fact in 2010, while Sile and I were by the canal, on a bench on the bank at the bottom of the locks, an ascent started and several boats started to file into the bottom lock to start their long climb up the stairway. A large boat, manned by half a dozen middle aged ladies and gents, obviously not experienced sailors, were the last to try and fit in but were turned away by the lock keeper who reckoned the lock was too full to contain them.
Disappointed, they then decided to do something strange. Instead of reversing back and mooring they decided to turn their barge in the canal. Their barge was in fact just about exactly the same length as the width of the canal and so, shortly, the inevitable happened, and they became wedged laterally across the Canal du Midi.
The man at the wheel then performed heroic actions with his engine, sending up clouds of steam and burning lots of engine oil but to no avail. Then the decision was made and very shamefaced, (the barge now had become the attraction of the locks) five of the party, men and women, scrambled down from the back of the barge on the dry land.
Then the man at the tiller tied a rope on to the bow of the boat and, after throwing it into the water several times, one of the women went on board and carried it back to the team on the bank. The shore team now lined themselves along the rope rather like a tug of war team and while the skipper continued to rev the engine heroically, they proceeded to try and dislodge the barge from its transverse position.
They weren’t enjoying any obvious success. The boat remained in the same position. Then the captain had a eureka moment and with a shout of joy he found a bit of equipment which he had not seen before. Triumphantly he pulled this lever and the boat just as suddenly started to turn, but unfortunately in the opposite direction of the tug of war team, and with such power that they were all dragged several yards on their tummies, protesting loudly towards the canal.
I must confess that I was so obviously enjoying the proceedings at this stage that Sile grabbed me firmly by the elbow and steered me towards the car.
To the best of my knowledge none of the team was actually deposited in the water but they were all left in a tangled heap on the bank while the skipper, unaware of their condition gazed around in triumph at, what he saw as his successful solving of the problem.
Martin Dwyer started cooking professionally over 40 years ago in the legendary “Snaffles Restaurant” in Dublin. After a time in a Relais Chateau in Anjou and in “The Wife of Bath” in Kent he opened his own much acclaimed restaurant, “Dwyers”, in Waterford in 1989. In 2004 he sold this and moved south to France where he and his wife Síle bought and restored an old presbytery in a village in the Languedoc. They now run Le Presbytère as a French style Chambre d’Hôte. Martin however is far too passionate about food to give up cooking so they now enjoy serving dinner to their customers on the terrace of Le Presbytère on warm summer evenings. Martin runs occasional cookery courses in Le Presbytère and Síle’s brother Colm does week long Nature Strolls discovering the Flora and Fauna of the Languedoc.
Le Presbytère can be seen at: www.lepresbytere.net;