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!

Along la Loire

July 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have a little attic room in a two-star hotel in the Loire valley. I’m staying right by the train station in Tours and my little window looks out directly on the other little window across the street. The room is about big enough for the double bed, the TV (on which I am watching numerous Olympic events and discovering new sports, all through the slant of French commentators) and me sitting on the floor. The rain putters down outside and it is cool enough to store my yogurt on the windowsill. I am happy to be back in France.

The sidewalk heading out of town along the Loire quickly becomes a spacious bike bath, descending right onto the riverbed, in the trees and bushes that line the water. A gentle drizzle cools the air and a couple of heavy gray clouds hang overhead. The water is peaceful, flattened by the rain, and reflects the clouds above. On the other side of the river, an aging stone castle emerges majestically between the trees and clouds. One might say that the landscape is grim, but it has never been more welcomed. I have not felt this energetic in quite awhile. A couple of miles in, I am focused, determined to push harder, rather than eager for the run to be over and to collapse under a fan for the rest of my lifetime.

After the madness that was walking around in Athens, the sleepiness of Tours is a calm respite, though I am ever frustrated because I always seem to be hungry at times when restaurants are generally closed. So I wander the narrow streets, looking at one menu or another, aimless due to the reality that I cannot actually dine at any of these places, and finally score two small loaves of bread at a nearby bakery — one green olive, one peppered with dark chocolate, so much so that you might call it a loaf of dark chocolate with bread. And maybe, one loaf was finished on the rainy walk back to the hotel.

Departures and Arrivals, Paris and Athens

July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

The first striking thing about Athens is the heat — it hangs like a heavy blanket over the city, beating down not as the scorching sun but more like a sluggish lag that permeates all movement. But despite this, activity is not smothered. At the corner of my block, a man stands at the window, roasting meat on a large stick, surrounded by trays of various sauces, creamy white ones and pasty, hot reds. He beckons me to come in with a smile and a nod, but I’m more focused on finding the grocery store, which is just across the street.

Before diving into the local cuisine, I was more eager to get back to cooking. It seemed a bit crazy to arrive and immediately turn on the heat, but there’s currently a batch of walnut-fig granola, dusted with Greek honey, roasting in the oven, and I’m now enjoying — despite the lack of pans and cutting boards in the kitchen — the feeling of having a knife in my hands again and being able to just eat slices of raw tomato, dipped in honey mustard, without getting weird looks from a waiter for not ordering the four-course menu. I already can’t wait to make breakfast tomorrow morning.

I had a lot of misgivings about coming to Athens, which consisted of the now commonplace warnings of protests, economic collapse and all-out disorganization, but also of several lackluster, or downright negative, accounts of the city from people I have met on this trip, and also from some very good friends back home. However, the drive through the city from the airport, and then the quick three-block walk to the grocery store, were reassuring. The streets may twist and branch off every which way and some of the sidewalks may have garbage piled up on them, but there are smiles everywhere. I don’t even know how to say hello, thank you or excuse me yet, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the old women debating types of grains in the grocery aisle.

Before I sign off and head out for drinks with the owner of my apartment, I thought I’d share some Paris moments. I spent the majority of my (unexpected and unplanned) time in Paris sitting in my hotel bed, or at the small table on my balcony. I spent some time reviewing posts from last summer, particularly one I wrote following a weekend visit to Paris. Last summer, I commented that revisiting Paris, after having spent the fall semester living here, was slightly bizarre, like experiencing a past life, only this time behind a plane of glass. Walking by my old apartment, the patisserie where I used to buy tri-colored slices of Turkish marzipan, my favorite street-side crepe stand, with the orange awning, inspired a bout of homesickness. But I don’t think it was ever really homesickness for my life in Paris, but rather an inability to imagine living that over again, a feeling of exile from the city I once fought really hard to call home. This time around, I lay around in bed in front of my computer, feeling pretty alone in a city that people always say, in adoring tones, is full of light and love and unparalleled opportunities of discovery, whether your passion is art or architecture, or eating.

And then, finally, I shook myself awake and went out. I walked to the Pierre Hermé boutique by Saint Suplice and ordered myself five macarons, some dusted with edible glitter, in flavors such as jasmine tea and peach cardamon. I laughingly remembered the feeling of never feeling like I was chic enough to be in the store, feeling like the ladies behind the counter could see right through my clothes and knew that my underwear isn’t 300 euro lacy lingerie from the boutique down the street. Then I wandered over to Les Deux Magots and had a café crème next to a dapper old man who had to lean in an inch away from the paper in order to read the morning news.

Les Alpes — Le Alpi

July 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

It seems like so long ago that I was sitting outside in the middle of the Alps, eating dinner with my family, my brother and I passing goat cheese toasts over the table and poking at an eggy, over-cooked crème brulée. It seems like just yesterday that he was sitting in the back seat of the rental car complaining that he had seen enough cows, that they’re disgusting animals, that the lemon tart he was eating wasn’t as good as the ones I make, that next time, vacations should be max 2 weeks long. Now, I’m very much alone, sitting in a hotel room, windows wide open overlooking the rooftops around my building. If you just stretch your head out the window, you can see the briny, green river. Running alongside the river brings a variety of views, from picturesque old squares and cathedrals, cafés and sanwicheries, to construction sites, run-down car dealerships, and trailer parks, guarded by yippy, haggard dogs, barely tethered to the fence.

Back in the snow-dusted Alps, you could drive for miles without seeing a single house, and a village meant a cluster of buildings — perhaps six or seven — with one brasserie and, if you were lucky, a post office or pharmacy. Driving down into the valleys, we had to stop once or twice to let the cows cross the road and continue up the mountain to greener pastures. When we stopped at each cheese-making post, we might happen upon the occasional group of hikers, or a small family, with a naked toddler playing in the puddles of melted snow. The bright, crisp freshness of the mountains is now a stark contrast to the smell of seaweed stewing in the summer air.

With about a month to go, the desire to go home is popping up every so often, particularly when I’m waiting in the international terminal watching other flights board around me. When checking-in for my flight to Bordeaux in the Barcelona airport, the line of people checking-in for a United flight to New York tugged at my desire to return to North American breakfasts and dinner-sized salads. But on the plus side, being back in France, understanding everything that is going on around me for the first time in weeks, and restoring my faith in French friendliness, isn’t so bad either.

Marseille and le sud

October 21, 2010 § 1 Comment










It was dawn when I awoke in the small room we had reserved in Marseille, the second largest town in France after Paris, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. I dressed in my warmest fleece — though it was not too warm as I had been expecting beach weather — grabbed a couple mini pain au chocolats from the breakfast spread downstairs, and a tartine spread with blueberry jam, and struggled outside into the cold. I walked down rue Edmond Rostand, back under the arch welcoming you to the Quartier Antiquares, to the old port, where hundreds of leisure boats were tied up for the night. I took shelter from the wind at the Bar de la Marine, where I took a café crème at a small table alongside half a dozen old weathered men, who were reading the newspapers and making short comments to each other. Every time another man walked in, he would go around the tables shaking hands with them all, before grabbing seat. Obviously, a regular Saturday morning habit.

News of the French grèves topped the front pages of every paper, with an expected street demonstration in the afternoon, and the men commented that, in their days, they would never have asked to be paid for a strike day, which is one of the reasons people are still protesting. They handed me the women’s fashion section and then seeing that I was more interested in the news, gave me that one too. One man’s dog — a black furry little thing whom I initially thought was named Milou, like the dog in the TinTin comics before realizing that it was actually the bar patron whose name was Milou — came and sat beside me, quite still, just gently resting on my leg. And that is how the day woke in Marseille.

I walked by the water, taking in the fishermen haggling their morning’s take with passerbys and a couple of others selling good luck charms to tourists. I stopped at a market vendor for a hazelnut macaron, a rustic, hearty little cookie, which could not have been less like the refined Parisian macarons. For which I was very glad. I split two loaves of bread — one cheese-topped olive loaf and one flakey cheese twist — with a nice woman who wanted to try both at the Marché Castellane and then there was a slice of pizza, one of Marseille’s specialties, from a truck vendor on the Castellane circle. Next, we headed out to the Palais Longchamp and a walk around the area nearby, where we found the Eglise Saint-Vincent de Paul. A short Metro ride took us up back to the Vieux Port, where we intended to walk around the Quartier Le Panier.

However, as it was already the middle of the afternoon, the demonstrations were in full force. The grèves over the retraite conflict in France have come to a head, with on-and-off ground transportation for the past week —mostly canceled trains and the Metro running about half of the time —, thousands of people demonstrating in the streets almost every other day and the front pages of every newspaper in the country devoted to the multitude of issues, opinions and standpoints on the age of retirement and government finances. This can make it difficult to move around and between cities in France. While I admire the fact that the French public can be so impassioned over an issue of importance in their lives, so much as to take to the streets and demonstrate — I’m not talking the one-day protests you often see in the United States over one human rights issue or another, but real demonstrations with fire, chants, speakers shouting over the crowds and students bellowing campaign slogans to popular tunes — it is hard to not become increasingly frustrated with the situation. We took shelter by walking the length of the port to the Palais Pharo, climbing to the top and looking out over the Mediterranean waters. The wind was strong on the cliff, blowing in harshly from the shore and we soon decided to look for better shelter.

Dinner was bouillabaisse at Chez Michel on the cliff. Perhaps we went in with some grandiose expectations of bouillabaisse, and left a little disappointed with what is said to be one of the best ones in town. Perhaps I simply fail to see what the big deal is about fish stew.

The next morning, we took a bus up to Aix-en-Provence. A long lunch of tea and salads, with creamy fresh mozzarella, thick slices of salami and prosciutto and fig jam at Le Palantino. A quick stop for a cone of hot, freshly roasted chestnuts on the Cours Mirabeau. Most vineyard tours were closed as it was Sunday and lavender season is long over, so we opted for a 6 euro ride on the little train which took us more or less in little loops around the old town. Walking around on our own proved more fruitful: we stopped at La Cure Gourmande where they eagerly walk around with tins of sweets, shoving one cookie or chocolate after another at you for tasting. And really, who could deny them that. Finally a real lemon tart, without all that excessive sweetness that is meringue, at Paul Patisserie. Then it was to Les Deux Garçons, an old brasserie frequented by many famous writers, for a final cup of tea before catching the 7:15 p.m. bus back to Marseille.

Unfortunately, the bus didn’t have the same plans and was delayed until about 8 p.m. This meant a lot of time spent freezing at the bus stop in which we made friends with the boy sitting next to us. Turns out he was going back to Marseille for school — he is studying to be a watchmaker, which is his passion — after having been home in a small town outside Aix for the weekend. When we disembarked the bus in Marseille and were saying goodbye, his face light up like a little kid’s on Christmas and he declared that he had a present for us. A little bit of rummaging around in his bag later — during which I was sure he was going to produce either a watch, or a bag of candy — he produced a bottle of wine from his hometown of Luberon. And, as my friend said, you can go from loving the French, to hating them, to loving them again, all in a day’s travels.

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