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.

Athena, Athens, Attica

July 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I know it’s barely acceptable — read not at all — to be complaining about being in a warm country with beaches, fresh seafood, juicy peaches and iced espresso and gyros on every street corner. But this San Francisco girl — read girl who grew up in the fog and the cold sea air — has been sitting in bed for the past few hours, next to the fan, waiting for the opportune moment to go on a run. Only to discover that, come 8 p.m., half an hour before sunset, it is still 90 degrees outside, a whole ten degrees lower than it was this afternoon. After several rounds of being that annoying person who complains all the time, which met notably with “f*** working out, relax,” I’ve effectively decided that it’s a putter-around-the-apartment night for me. Highlights include eating the best parts — read, the cashews, sweet dates and the sesame peanuts I picked up from a street vendor — out of my latest batch of granola, plowing through the dark cherries I picked up from the Pagrati neighborhood farmers’ market, and applying a yogurt mask, in the hopes that it will pull out the redness of my sunburn.

Lest you think I’m a lazy person, I should preface this all by saying that I spent the hours between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. walking the entire city, because my apartment is located quite far from the metro and the taxi driver wanted 15 euro to drive me home (I could have gotten to the port for that price!). I reshot parts of the Agora Central Market, notably the spice and dried herb shops — you would not believe the crazy things they store in jars there, such as oak tree bark for making teas. I wandered off into the distance looking for the Ancient Market, the oldest “mall” in the world (and the long, rectangular building in the sunset picture below), only to discover that my sense of direction is useless without the vantage point of sitting at the base of the Acropolis. Then I topped this all off with a cup of frozen yogurt and a march back across town to the National Archeological Museum, which I bet I walked through entirely spaced out. I had to sit down several times in front of numerous ancient vases because I thought I was going to pass out. Then I refilled my water bottle and walked the hour home. And I’ve been here ever since.

Still there is one beautiful thing about the heat. It creates these hazy, pastel sunsets that I simply cannot get enough of. Whether I am standing in the Mediterranean water, perched on top of the highest hill in the middle of the city, or strolling — read shopping my way — through the small island town, the sunsets can maybe, maybe, only be topped by the vibrancy of the setting sun over the Pacific on Ocean Beach.

Greek Explorations

July 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

I took off from Athens for a couple of days for a real vacation — a tour of several Greek islands. And somewhere between piling my clothes into my backpack for what feels like — and is probably close to be being — the hundredth time, conquering the scorching heat in rickety buses, where the driver yells at you to get on board without answering your question about the destination of said bus, with sweat pouring down your face, and dipping my toes in the water, as the sun finally starts to set, things started looking up.

I think I forgot that it is summer. That I am in a foreign country, where everything I look at is brand-new to my eyes. That this is the time for exploring, for pushing myself, for doing me and for doing the incredible amount of things waiting to be experienced around me. Volcanoes. Black-sand beaches. Ferry rides watching the clear, vibrant blue ocean drift past. Dancing on tables. Souvlaki — pita stuffed with meat shavings (traditionally lamb) vegetables, tzatziki sauce and a smattering of French fries — at five in the morning. And while I may be experiencing Greece mostly as a tourist, I am rounding up some awesome Australian friends. So guess what continent we’re exploring next?

Meanwhile, I’ve been stepping back and actually enjoying time to myself again. Time just sitting still and taking it all in — except I rarely actually sit still. After a day of lazing around poolside, with a walk along the harbor and an ocean-side skype sesh with the boyfriend, I finally deemed the temperature low enough to attempt a run. Boy, was I wrong. But run I did, up every damn desert hill on the island. Beet-red, panting and pouring buckets of sweat, I finally made it back to the hotel, where a dip in the Mediterranean and a watermelon slice twice the size of my head were exactly what my body ordered.

And then, I also wanted to share the site that I’ve been working for in Athens, and also in Barcelona — Culinary Backstreets. It just launched yesterday, and you’ll see my photos popping up here and there in the next few weeks. Here are some from a delicious lunch at Melilotos in Athens. I got to go into the kitchen here one night to take photos — lots of fire action for a traditional chicken pasta dish. When we returned in the afternoon, it was too hot to attempt eating pasta, but the veggie options were not scarce.

Beet salad with balls of creamy herbed goat cheese.

The best citrusy tabouleh I have ever had, served with a row of freshly fried, salty sardines.

Deep-fried tomatoes and cheese.

Zucchini very thinly sliced and flash fried. Crispy, crackly, and served with tzatziki yogurt for dipping.

I still dream about that bittersweet chocolate pie with buttery biscuit crust and may have to make a quick stop before heading to the airport.

Greek Beginnings

July 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’ve started this post over and over again, and each time, I end up stopping because I decide, no, that’s not what I want to talk about here. By all means, it was a very good day. I woke up early and went for a run through the national gardens in the city center, running past the Parliament building, ruins, the first modern Olympic stadium. Later on, I wandered into what was suggested to me as the best bakery in the world, and sampled a variety of goods — homely chocolate chip cookies (with pistachios!), eggy challah dusted with almond slivers, dense balls of coconut flakes, scented with orange and cardamom. I then meandered down to the Acropolis museum, where, in addition to seeing never-ending tributes to the goddess Athena, I enjoyed a Greek café and a tower of cream topped with heavily-sweetened figs on the rooftop terrace, with full view of the Acropolis. I shopped — prices, low to begin with due to the crisis, are now slashed in half for summer sales. I drank iced espresso, perhaps my favorite part of Greece so far. I arranged my yoga schedule for tomorrow. And then I came home and sat down to write.

And that’s when the problem started. I got lonely. I tried putting on soothing, jazzy French music. I tried writing, and stopped, and started again. I tried eating a cookie, and then thought about baking. But, to be honest, all my grand baking plans sort of fell through with the realization that it’s actually 40°C here and the thought of turning on the oven makes me miserable inside. Plus, I don’t exactly fancy buying huge bags of flour and sugar (and that not even counting the baking power that I would have to track down in Greek), only to leave them behind, mostly unused, in less than two weeks. So now I’m back to just sitting, and trying to write.

Normally, traveling alone is my prime writing time. But I think I’m well beyond the point when being alone inspires thoughtful reflections on life and key observations about the new culture, which I am experiencing full-on as I lack the homey distractions of traveling with family or the ruckus of active friends eager to do everything at once. I’m well into I have so much time to think about everything that I’ve thought about everything once or twice or a hundred times and I am so tired of my own thoughts.

So there you go, no profound reflections, just a plea for you to start making your own granola, because it is so much better than the sugary catastrophes that you buy at the grocery store. Just a couple of spoonfuls of honey, a drizzle of olive oil, three handfuls of walnuts, some chopped dried figs, and half a bag of rolled oats.

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.

Strawberry Hazelnut Cream Tart

July 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in Paris, eight floors above the street, below, just steps away from the Saint Michel fountain, where crowds of tourists are still applauding two men performing some sort of bizarre sequence of body movements, which, in my opinion, hardly qualify as art or as acrobatic contortions. Horns are blaring, and I’m sure in some parts of the city — perhaps even a couple blocks away — parties are well under way for Bastille Day. I walked around about a four-block radius of my hotel and then retreated to my sanctuary of a hotel room.

Lately, I’ve been longing to be home, or at least somewhere I can call home for a couple of weeks, dreaming about having a kitchen again and starting each morning with a bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and a cup of fresh coffee. Craving strange and random things that I certainly never thought would be at the top of my list — non-fat milk, whole grains, avocado, and curry. Homey, healthy, and flavors with a kick. Believe it or not, one cannot eat croissants forever, though I have certainly put it to the test.

Thankfully, it will be exactly one day until I have a kitchen again — though it still could not be farther from home —, as I have a growing list of desserts, and surprisingly savory dinner items, to make. In honor of this occasion, I thought I’d share something I made in the days leading up to this trip (read, almost two months ago). Fresh California strawberries sit atop a thick layer of vanilla pastry cream. The crust is crunchy, and just slightly overbaked to the point that it’s crystallized and caramelizing. Before filling the tart, I dipped a knife and a couple of spoons in a jar of hazelnut jam that my mom picked up at a local bakery, and spread the crust with nutty goodness. This tart disappeared in a flash, I think because it became of a favorite breakfast item of my dad’s.

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.

Barcelona, España

July 8, 2012 § 1 Comment

I am obsessed with the old yellowed buildings, gothic balconies and small alleyways of Barcelona, cut by the wide boulevards lined with palm trees and grassy areas. I am enthralled, and have managed to overcome my dislike of walking to wander about the city for entire days at a time. Hidden pockets of stores, bakeries and tapas joints, just off the main streets, but somehow secluded, guarded by the intricate maze of alleys, which act as fortifications against the throngs of tourists that pack the city center at all times of day.

What I am not quite so taken with is Spanish food, which is unfortunate, since that is the reason why I am here. I am simply failing to grasp the obsession with anchovies, why a perfectly good pepper has to be stuffed with some strange cream cheese in order to be served as a tapa, and why shrimps are cooked with delicate care, except with their shells on so that the diner can strip away all the oils and herbs, leaving nothing but a bare shrimp, with his intestines still intact. I know the latter is typical (and traditional) in many cultures, but I still just don’t get it, unless the satisfaction lies in your fingers smelling like shrimp for the remainder of the day. I have however, braved a sardine head, before eating the entire fried fish (yes I know they’re tiny, but eating a sardine is a big deal for me), pulling out the teeny skeleton as I went.

And, of course, I have managed to embrace several sweets, along with the architecture: donuts filled with dulce de leche or rolled in flaked coconut, and crispy, chewy churros, served alongside hot chocolate so thick it can be eaten like pudding — or simply used as a dipping sauce, as is traditional. Desserts so rich they ooze guilt and indulgence.

When I was not wandering aimlessly — I somehow managed to not go to the majority of the monuments, Gaudi houses and churches, mostly due to my impatience with waiting in long lines — I sat on the patio in the hostel, with 2 euro wine. And then, later on, laid by the rooftop pool of my hotel, taking in the sun and feeling the breeze from the sea drift over my face.

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!

Modena and the surrounding countryside

June 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

After a pretty stark experience in the countryside of the département du nord of France — dreary, wet weather and everywhere shuttered windows and closed storefronts, restaurants utterly abandoned, with only the lonely bar where one could down a petit café in the company of young boys and aging men playing fussball —, I have arrived in Italy. The greetings, the smiles, the helpful advice, all a breath of fresh air. The woman standing by the side of the road selling cartons of cherries and apricots who didn’t buy my “just smile and nod” approach to communication, but was happy to chatter away to me in Italian anyway. The girls who looked up how to say shoemaker on google translate in order to answer my questions about shoe sizes in their shop. The numerous cheesemakers who opened their doors and answered incessant questions about milk temperatures and their childhoods. The family of vinegar makers who took turns giving the full tour of their facilities, all the way up to the attic, where the young children’s “dowries” of vinegar kegs are kept. Everywhere smiles, even though my most commonly used phrase is “ho non capito,” I don’t understand. Everywhere, an earnest wine recommendation, a singing praise of the local ricotta, served in tortelli that night. Never a grumpy look, except perhaps from the strange guy who invited me for a pizza while I was out shopping one morning.

The last few days have been filled with pizza, shoe shopping, and tours and interviews at local cheese, prosciutto and balsamico producers. Each one is a slightly different facility, each with its quirks, but all with quality products, clearly cared for by the passion of the workers, sometimes only 2 or 3 in number. We’ve twirled and twisted on old country roads, never going through a day without asking for directions; wandered through an all-night festival outside our hotel that we somehow never knew was taking place until we were walking right through it; suffered through the scorching heat, without a gelateria in sight. But now, sitting in a roadside motel room in Spilamberto, with its incredible, natural and organic gelateria within walking distance, prepping to take-on la notte bianca, we are slowly reaching the end of Modena. Just a few days left to go.

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