Sunday, July 30, 2006

Travels to Alsace and Southern Germany: Part 2

Day Two:

After such a hellish heat the day before, it was a blessing to wake up to cloudiness and cool weather. Even if the church bell woke me at 6am, I didn't really care so long as I was no longer hot.


Ever had those experiences where you go slack-jawed when the names and places you heard in geography or social studies back in school suddenly present themselves to you boldly? I've had it happen in the past many times in Europe--stunned before the kiss-covered tomb of Oscar Wilde, looking at THE River Seine, standing atop a man-made hill, looking down on the battlefield of Waterloo. When you are told that, yes, you are crossing over the Rhine River (as I was that morning), you forget to breathe for a moment. Until you see these things so often told to you in history classes or that you've drawn on maps, these names of places really doesn't make sense. Not fully, at least. To really understand the sense of history and culture, you literally have to be in the place and experience it.

The Rhine River

Now, it's true, the first place we stopped in Germany, Freiburg, probably never crossed my eyes in literature before but I wish I'd known about it earlier. It's such a pretty little German town. There are little man-made streams throughout the old parts of the town rather like gutters with a constant flow of water. The houses and cathedral are charming to say the least.

I was so happy to see a European open-air market at last. Everything from sausages to herbs, fruits and veggies to houseplants, toys and tourist trinkets were being sold. Even the smell of freshly fried sausages or stalls selling big pretzels were in full force. Over it all towered the huge Gothic catherdral.

It was here I was starting to see the difference of culture between the French and the Germans. The most obvious to see in this town (and I saw in the Alsatian-border town of Strasbourg) was bikes-lots and lots and lots of bikes. Except during the Tour de France, it's rare to see the average French person ride bikes (I exclude kids since they don't have cars). Well, at least what I've seen so far in the North. The only place I think there's an exception to this is Brittany (Bretagne). Chances are, if you see somebody riding a bike in France (barring the exceptions), it's likely a German, British, North American or Dutch tourist.

The rest of the day until past 5pm was spent mostly in the car trying to get to our next hotel. It was really remarkable to see the scenery change from the flat yellow-green plains of France to the rolling green hills of southern Germany. Again I was stunned to be told that, at one point, we were driving through THE actual Black Forest. How cool is that?

The Black Forest

We did stop at a tourist road-café in Germany for lunch. Well, let's just say, it was a cafeteria. You know what to expect of the food in cafeterias. But it was remarkable different from the tourist road-cafés I've been to in France. There seems to be a greater amount of functionalism and efficiency in German establishments. And it was considerably brighter than the average French style which are usually quite moody in their dimly lit rooms. The options were certainly more varied and there were were actual attempts at offering food to vegetarians. So many French don't seem to understand or want to understand vegetarianism. You should have been around the year I was trying out raw veganism. I might as well said that I was planning on growing three heads by the looks I got from my French in-laws.

When we reached the Bavarian Alps at last, we were all ready to crash. The computerized tourist program had planned our trip according to short distances but never took into account that wending your way through little country roads in Bavaria meant a lot of slow speeds and farm vehicles. In the end the short distances became just as long as taking the regular roads. Still I got a good gander at the part of Germany to which so many Germans flock for vacation.

Our hotel, The Rübezhal, was a four-star hotel and boy was the wait worth it. Cool temperatures in the room, clean white and pine finishes, tonnes of storage space, a desk, a table, a daybed with reading light, even a balcony with chairs. It also came with the guilt-inducing stickers reminding you, in rhyme, to be nice to the environment. After a lovely walk to the lake, Der Forggensee, and through paths that led by bell-wearing cows (a nice sound), we returned to dinner at the hotel.

The fixed price dinner I had was actually not too shabby! First a mocktail of cantaloupe juice and green tea (very refreshing). A trip to get a plate of charcuterie/salad bar items, followed by white asparagus soup with bacon (the worst part of the dinner). The main course was breaded and pistachio'd catfish on a bed of dilled, creamed cucumbers (excellent) served with a nice German white wine (excellent too!). And I was totally not expecting what I got for dessert because, well, do YOU call the picture below of my dessert "a parfait"? It was good though. I got pistachio cake and the Frog got a chocolate cake but the creamy home-made ice cream and the slightly sour berries all worked together with either flavour.

All the while that we were eating this lovely dinner, we had an amazing view of the nearby Alps and the castles we would visit the next day: Hohenschwangau and Newschwanstein. We went to bed as happy, full little piglets under down-filled covers listening to insects and the odd, out-late bike riders. What a change from the day before.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Travels to Alsace and Southern Germany: Part 1

Day One:

It can be trance-inducing to watch the fields of Northern France whip by as you drive along to your destinations. Wheat, soy, corn, sunflowers, beets seem to blur together. Then you enter into Alsace, the most northeasterly section of France. 'Wait, wasn't that hops?' you say, startled out of your trance. 'Isn't that cabbage?' you say as the silvery crops punctuate your view. 'Dear God, miles and miles of grapes in every direction!' you gasp.

Then, you enter Strasbourg.

Everything that your mind was taking in with the crops gasps again at the beauty of the architechture. Soon you are surrounded by architecture so different from the other Northern cities you've seen. A cathedral that was breath-taking comes into view. It's surrounded by a square with charming houses of all kinds. A busker sings opera accompanied by a violinist. It only seems appropriate. You wait in the blistering sun until you finally tromp inside and wait in the sweltering dark with way too many other people hoping to catch a glimpse of the cathedral's astronomical clock do it's little noon-time dance. After having the history of the clock explained to you in three different languages, twice, you finally get to see and hear it. 'Death' rings a bell, Jesus 'blesses' the apostles that mechanically wander pass him. The metal cockerel crows for every four apostles that go by... It seemed such a long wait for such a short whirl of the clock. I wouldn't have missed it for the world though. Things like this just don't exist in Canada as far as I know.

As you exit the catherdral, there are a number of little restaurants you can patronize in the church square for lunch. We chose 'Aux Armes de Strasbourg', a brasserie. Here I experience my first taste of Franco-Germanic food. I wanted to taste regional things on the trip as much as I could so I had a 'jambonneau', ham section on bone, while the men shared a large dish of choucroute (Sauerkraut with meat, meat and meat). The ham I had was not bad but I just loved the mustardy potato salad with it. It balanced the meat taste really well. I tried a bit of the sauerkraut and still found it a bit to strange for my liking yet. I even allowed myself to sip a tiny bit of the beer the Frog was swooning over and found it didn't actually make me regurgitate like most beer.

After a trip altogether too short in Strasbourg we were whisked away south to visit a castle, Haut-Koenigsbourg, atop one of the "mountains" of Alsace in the Vosges ranges. I just wish I could have visited on a less oppressively hot day since I was highly irritated by the end of it all. A shame, since it was such a nice castle with such a great view over the plains of Alsace.

We ended our day at a little country inn where we were to sup and to sleep. Again, such a pity about the heat as it was a cute little place. Unfortunately, practically any food there could make you sweat and its typical European non-reliance on A/Cs made any breeze on your skin feel like you won the lottery.

For the dinner I again wanted to choose something local. I chose too much for the heat and something so totally wrong for a hot day. After a fairly typical French shrimp coctail, I had Alsatian spaëtzlé with Munster cheese sauce. It was good to begin with and then the power of the Munster kicked in. The heady aroma of that cheese is NOT what you want to smell or taste on a hot day. The rosé-style pinot that we had with it only enhanced the cheese taste to the max. I admitted defeat not even quite half-way through. By the end I was literally begging for lemon sorbet just to cool my overheated body.

Four showers later and giddy with heat-sickness, Frog and I, thankfully, laughed our way to sleep as we heard what seemed to be bigger and bigger farm vehicles drive past our open window. We imagined tanks and space shuttles to be the next to go past. It was enough to have a good chuckle as cool breezes finally started allowing a little sleep for us a couple hours after sundown.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Le Mandarin: A Little Trip To Heaven

One of the joys of having family in France is that you see a side of France that the average tourist doesn't see. I've been several times to the supermarkets, I've sat just as numbed by French TV as I have Canadian/American shows, little local historical sites that only the most picky specialist might dream of visiting and being greeted by family and friends all over as one of their own with the little double peck cheek-kisses. One of the little joys, too, is going to a restaurant that your French family has patronized for years and years. You are known by name and treated with an affability that only familiarity can bring.

Yesterday we went to such a restaurant in Bar-Le-Duc. It's called Le Mandarin. I've been there before a couple of times but this time we went for a family favourite: Chinese Dip. Chinese Dip is a type of spicy fondue in which you take individual portions of meats, noodles and vegetables and cook them to your liking in the bubbling brew. I'm sure it has another name but I don't know the English version.

Fairly patted into our seats, we were started with freshly-made shrimp chips, the kind often served by North American Chinese restaurants but these tasted more shrimpy than the ones I have known. I don't know about my readers but I love to let the little bubbles of those chips pop on my tongue and attached like little suction cups. It's a ritual I've had with these chips since I was very little. We were also served a nice bit of the bubbly for an apértif.

In a feat that always amazes me in Europe, our lunch was brought out almost as quickly as we were done the apértifs and snacks. I'm not used to restaurants like that in my part of the world. Or maybe I'm going to the wrong ones.

The Chinese dip is set on the table warm in a metal bowl and immediately brought to a boil with a table-top gas burner. The broth is an amazingly complex collection of tastes: satay, peanuts, chiles and many other secret indredients. We are assured it is very healthy for the body just as a soup alone. Along with the dip comes overflowing dishes of bean thread noodles, chinese cabbage, bean sprouts and plates of various kinds of meat. With a little metal scoop in hand, you chopstick your food choices in to the bowl of the golden spoon and then dip it into the boiling fondue. When it is cooked you can take them out and continue with as much cooking as you please. Ladle in some of the spicy fondue into your personal bowl and then dig in. This procedure took well over an hour, I think. Since the bowls are small and it is a labourious process, it lets you eat over a long perioud of time.

The most amazing wine was chosen by my Frogger-in-law to go with this spicy dish: Gewurztraminer. A flowery white wine from Alsace, it has a perfume like a Chinese flower tea which makes it perfect for Chinese food. I was amazed by the way the food and wine complimented each other. If you have never had this with Chinese food, try it! You might be pleasantly surprised.

Although we were stuffed, after a little bit of a chatty break with the owner and watching the giant, fat-lipped fish in the door-side tank, we ordered some desserts. My own choice was Nougat Chinois. I really didn't know what to expect and wondered whether I regretted not getting a moon cake. What came was a red bowl full of delectable little chewy golden-brown cubes with peanuts and covered with toasted sesame seeds. It was very nice, rather like a complex jubejube. Of course, as with all French meals, it ended with little cups of coffee served with dark chocolate.

I think the dreamy 2-hour lunch ended perfectly with hot towels for our fingers that were not only hot but perfumed with essence-of-white-peach. My fingers smelled of peach for hours after, a nice little reminder of such a pleasant visit.

If you are ever in Bar-Le-Duc, try out this little Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant. With such a pleasant atmosphere and smiling service, I really don't think you'd go away disappointed. Go on... Madame is waiting for you.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

La Meuse: It's where I am

For the last few years many of my summers have been partially spent in the department of Meuse, a section of the Lorraine region. It's where my Froggie's family currently lives. Foodwise, it's a region well known for mirabelles (a small yellow cherry-plum), groseilles (red currants)*, black truffles, of course, Brie de Meaux and the original birthplace of the madeleine (in Commercy)and Verdun dragée (candy-coated almonds). Lorraine is also well known for its macaroons, quiche and bergamot-flavoured candies. Now that I'm a foodie, I'll be collecting things to take home.

Fresh dessert cheese with stewed mirabelles, fresh yellow plum on top

Alas, a foodie's life is SO hard ;-)

For an English pdf pamphlet of the Meuse, its sights and delights, etc click here

*The red current jam of Bar-Le-Duc is rather expensive because the seeds are still taken out by goose quill to this day. No machine can replace the technique for the style of jam made here! Look at a feather specialist, the épépineuse and a page dedicated to the contest between them and the jam produced

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mwa-hahahaha! Dontcha Know It ! !

You Are a Powdered Devil's Food Donut

A total sweetheart on the outside, you love to fool people with your innocent image.

On the inside you're a little darker, richer, and more complex.

You're a hedonist who demands more than one pleasure at a time.

Decadent and daring, you test the limits of human indulgence.

...You better believe it, baby! ;-)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Paean to a Morning Breakfast

I've never been a person to linger over breakfast. I think maybe I was wrong to be like that. Maybe I'd been going about it in the wrong way.

I very carefully collected a lovely breakfast this morning fit for royalty. I slowly ate my way through it, enjoying the sight of the rising sun, the canticles sung out to God by the birds, the ensuing, joyful sound of church bells calling out the hour of Matins. To be at peace in the calm of the morning, eating a breakfast of good whole foods, is the best way to begin a day. I really should do it more often.

Can you figure out what I had for breakfast?

The first one's easy because it's already written on the side: Greek Yoghurt (shepherd style for those who can't read French)

Let's see what else you can guess... (No cheating Papa!) ;-)


June 16, 9 AM
Alrighty, the list:

1) Pink Lady Apple
2) Orange, Mandarin, Apricot, Apple Juice
3) Pastry #1 An escargot, a snail-shaped pastry with custard and raisins
4) Pastry #2 Pain au chocolat
5) Green Almonds (the fuzzy things ;-) )
6) Greek yoghurt-- to be exact, ewe's milk yoghurt

For those of you not familiar, almonds are born within a fruit of fuzzy green colour. Picked early they may not have fully formed yet. These can be eaten as a jellly like nut. A little bit later on the fruit is still green but a pale ivory slip of a nut lies within, easily slipped out of its sheat but, as my finger can attest to, not so easily cut out. Check this page out for some more information.

As you can see, the shell has formed but it's not impossible to open. A good nutcracker makes easier work of it.

I made mention to Michelle of Accidental Scientist that I was going to have pink currants at breakfast the next day. These currants are sweeter than the white or red and very suitable for eating out of hand or in a dessert. I'm sure they'd make excellent jelly.

Thought you might want to have a look at another French breakfast delight...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Brie de Meaux (and the rest of lunch)

This cheese has got to be the best dang cheese on the planet (although I'm fond of a good chèvre,too). Made from raw cow's milk, this brie is soft with a rich, nutty taste. The only thing this cheese is good with is fresh French bread and a nice French wine. To mar it with other tastes would be a sacrilege of the worst kind. I shudder to think of the inferior brie with various toppings cooked on top that was all the rage among yuppies. Been there, done that, soooooo moved on! I thought I'd found a good replacement in Canada. It was even a double cream import from France! But I was wrong--very very wrong. The French keep the best stuff for themselves ;-).

Another cheese on hand at lunch today was an aged Mimolette, a dense orange cheese that was so intense and rich in flavour that it nearly curled my toes. It is dry and brittle and not meant for slathering like brie.

One of my in-law-to-be's specialties was for lunch today: fresh sole cooked with lemon butter. I think it's nice how French fish is so often serve with bones and skin. It makes you slow down and really appreciate what you are about to eat. It's a nice way of honoring the flora or fauna that sacrificed its life for you*.

Gone but not forgotten. Yum!

* this is true of the lobster tails and lagoustines last night--it took a while to remove the shells but it was so very worth the wait. Sorry no pictures but I was half dead from jet lag though not too dead to appreciate the great wine and the great food.

Monday, July 10, 2006

FYI: Off to France

Well, folks, I've been a bit quiet but I hope not to be soon. About 12 hours from now (10:30) I will be on a plane heading for France. If all goes well, there will be pictures to share as well. He he he... now I'll be annoying two men with my camera beeps instead of just one.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A Legacy To Continue

For just a moment, the only sound disturbing the silent, golden afternoon is a far away droning plane. The rest of the world seems to have caught its breath as it tans in the warm sun. The shady grass under the cherry tree is cool against my skin. A whiff of honeysuckle drifts across the lawn. A bowlful of warm fruit lies at my side, the lingering juices still sharp-sweet on my tongue. It's a perfect moment. It's a time to reflect on the bountiful backyard in which I lie.

I always look forward to summer for one reason more than any other: My mother's plentiful garden. Now I know she'd squirm right now and say that it isn't at its best this year, the weather has been horrible, and so on. However, I've come to realize that food traditions don't always have to be of the cooked variety, or even prepped at all. I spent nearly all my years growing up with the opportunity to raid baby carrots, fresh green bush beans, fat green pea pods, crisp lettuce leaves, luscious red raspberries, voluptuous red cherries and blueberries by the handful. It was only the crisp, thin-skinned yellow apples that would need patience before they were finally ready.

Don't get me wrong, though. The cooked stuff was wonderful, too! Summer barbecues were accompanied by freshly steamed baby veggies or fried breaded zucchini which hours before could have been lingering happily in the shade under a leaf. A Sunday morning could be punctuated by the scent of fresh muffins made with berries picked the evening before. The kitchen could be filled with the eye-wateringly sharp scent of pickled beets being bottled, the mellow scents of blanched beans for freezing or the sweet scent of bubbling rhubarb jam.

I always knew I was lucky. I didn't remember other kids having moms who gardened as avidly as my mother, who cooked from scratch as frequently or didn't mind a gaggle of kids helping her with either. I just didn't realized how much this lifestyle had crept into my soul until I was far away from it. Now I find myself fussing and worrying over the quality of my food as my mother did (like she should ever have worried!) and desperately turning what little soil I can actually collect on my rocky island home into some semblance of an herb and flower garden. But it just isn't the same. There is NOTHING as wonderful as knowing you have carefully tended a plant from seedling to maturity and then savoured the fruits of your (and their) endeavours in various ways, both raw and cooked.

You don't need silver, jewels and pictures to pass down as a tradition. Sometimes all you need is a garden, a kitchen and a loving mother who created miracles in both. It's the beautiful legacy passed down to me and it's the most cherished thing of which I can think to pass down to my future progeny.