Auvergne, France

August 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

I continue to be awed by the incredible hospitality I received in the second half of my trip in France. Sitting on the long flight to Boston, after a whirlwind of a week in Auvergne, I’m coming back to the U.S. with a renewed faith in people, people who go out of their way, above and beyond anything I would ever have dreamed of asking for, to help. It’s one thing to sit down at a table, have an espresso, and talk to a stranger about what makes the food in their region special. It’s quite another to have said stranger invite you to stay for the week, show you the ins and outs of market shopping, butchering, the regional specialties — brioches aux pralines, brioche de tome (a sweet bread, in which some of the butter is replaced with country cheese, a medieval kitchen development when butter was scarce), gooey, caramelized potatoes and cheese, with crispy edges —, and volunteer to drive you everywhere.

Let me start by saying it was exhausting. My days started with a run at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast, taken together — large bowls of black tea, recently brought back from China, leftover fruit tarts and brioches from dessert the night before, jams from the region in interesting flavors such as thyme and foin (the dried plants that well-fed cows eat during the winter), a yogurt with a swirl of honey, and fresh apricots and oranges, bought from a local farmer who still owns land in Portugal. Then the driving and interviews commenced. Market visits. Creamery visits. Trips into the volcano parks to talk cheese and cows. My stack of relevant documents grew a mile higher. I have two-hour long interview clips that will need to be transcribed, translated, cut-down. I have tired legs and a full stomach, from lunches and dinners, plates full of tomatoes, basil from the terrace garden, thinly-cut hams, crusty bread, small piles of yellow lentils and wine that seems in endless supply. Two months into my research, on my last day of interviewing, this girl who always preferred desserts above all else, finally discovered the wonders of a perfect cheese plate.

My days ended around 11 or 12 p.m. with the final class of wine and slice of tart — either apricot with sweetened ricotta or small yellow plums, cooked down until their skins are blackened. Rustic, country tarts with little flare but the bold taste of fruit bought that day at the market. I curled up in bed every night, dead to the world, wanting to stay asleep forever. But the help I received in Auvergne, arriving just when I was thinking that this week, like my time in Maroilles, would be a complete bust, was more than I ever could have imagined. And the discovery that, in the modern world where we seem to be taught to be wary and suspicious of anyone appearing overly nice or helpful, hospitality and generosity still exists is perhaps the best outcome of all my research.

And it is not only true in Auvergne. Whether it’s the old Italian woman who comes downstairs to help you turn your car around in her driveway, the Greek boys who hand you free bunches of grapes and let you taste the entire line of olives (saying all the while that California is the home of the beautiful), or the numerous people who sat down, called probably half of the contacts in their phones, so that I would never be alone, without people to interview and people to just help, it’s nice to know that there are people out there eager to take care of you when you’re feeling lost.

And there’s nothing weird about that. There’s no need to run and hide when someone offers help. Sure ill-intentioned people do exist out there, but going out on a limb and just trusting is not such a terrible thing after all. And there you go, all my research findings, all summed up in a sentence. Well maybe not all of them, but the rest you’ll get in April, when I hand this thesis in!

This and that, my away message

July 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m in the process of booking a whirl-wind of complicated flight-train combo trips, overnight stops in random hostels, and 12+ hour-long days of travel. As much, my last day in Barcelona is being spent in the hotel lobby, having already walked to a food market this morning (which was, of course, closed), walked to a donut shop (which was, of course, closing in ten minutes, but I just managed to squeeze in), and locked myself out of my hotel room. So while I pull together a real post on Barcelona, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of snippets of travels that have previously gone unmentioned.

After my research in Maroilles went sort of awry, ending in a rather fruitless trip, we switched from the dingy, grimy motel room in the equally gray Maubeuge, to a small agritourisme in the area. While the rooms were huge, including both bath and shower, and refreshingly decorated, the highlight for me was the cute breakfast setup — all white napkins, crusty bread, flakey croissants, and several types of jam, served in little white ceramic pots. The tiny butter-dish even had a top, with equally tiny handle!

Later on, at a more upscale agritourismo outside of Modena, where the pool dropped off into the vineyards and hours could be spent dining on the patio overlooking the hills and valleys of the northern Italian countryside, we enjoyed tortelloni stuffed with spinach and local ricotta, an interesting pasta made with breadcrumbs and drenched with parmesan fondu before being topped with assertive black truffled shavings, stuffed omelettes and eggy, baked flan, and to finish, multiple rifts on vanilla-cream gelato, eaten with spoons of the house basalmico and tiny cups of espresso.

So there you go, some of the more beautiful moments of a trip that has often involved trudging through cow stalls, taking pictures of baby black pigs, and waking up at 6 a.m. in order to observe the entire cheese-making process (and that’s still hours later than the cheesemaker wakes up!). Ciao until next time!

Strasbourg, Munster and Cologne

June 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

Gentle beams of yellow light interlope on the dark room from the windows by my bed. Outside the translucent curtains, the sounds of laughter, high heels clicking on the cobblestone and waiters pouring the final glass of wine. Occasionally, the waft of a light cigarette floats through the open window from the walkway below. It’s the middle of the night, but Strasbourg isn’t sleepy. And neither am I. (Written about a week ago, when I was jet-lagged, heavy-headed, sitting in a dark hotel room waiting for the sunrise.)

The sun did rise, and my brother and I took a walk along in river in Strasbourg, stopping in at a boulangerie on the way back at exactly six a.m. Unfortunately, we never saw the sunrise because the sky was shrouded in clouds. Still the cobblestone streets were peaceful, mostly deserted save for the few men setting up white tents for the market in an old square and the street-cleaning trunks making their way down the larger roads.

From there, onwards to the mountainous region of Alsace and the Vosges. We twisted around the slopes and mountain passes, passing ski lifts running without snow on the ground, green pastures, studded with wildflowers, on which vosgienne cows — known for their black and white coloring, their delicate faces, a cow species renowned for its beauty (who knew that existed?) — grazed before being called into the barn to be milked. We descended on foot into cool caves, where rounds of cheese, tinged pink of the outside, age for several weeks.

Our final stop was Cologne for the weekend, where we rode bikes along the river (I only crashed once!) and ate “the best” gelato in town. In the backyard, breakfasts of croissants, fresh strawberry jam and steaming, milky coffee. In the evening, crowds of people looking up at the big TV screen displaying the soccer game for what must have been thousands of people. In the early morning, with the birds chirping and the rabbits scampering across the grass, walking home from the club.

Welcome to Euro, take three.

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