Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Short Drive for a Long Walk

Music: Driving In My Car, Madness

Since we've been car owners for two whole weeks, we thought we'd actually drive the car (which is named Ralph, by the way). First stop: Petrol (British for gas) station. 45.5 liters of petrol for £50 = 12 gallons for US$100 = US$8.30/gallon.


So, we drove all of 7 miles or so to Angsley Abbey, where we've been a few times before. They're known for good snowdrop viewing. Snowdrops (the white flower above) make their appearance in January, and they're all over Angsley Abbey. Angsley's winter garden is lovely, too. More pictures below.

We made further use of our new car by going to a New Grocery Store to buy all the heavy things that don't work well in a bike basket. Then we ran into one of JT's coworkers. Nothing like running into someone you know when your shopping cart's full of Diet Coke and beer.

So ... that's all I got. We'll try to get back to being more thrilling soon. Or else I'll just resort to eating more weird food for blog fodder. Here, look at pretty pictures.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Meet the New Member of the Family

Relax, it's just a used car! We picked up the new addition to our UK family (a 1996 VW Golf--automatic) almost 10 days ago but it's been gathering dust in the driveway as we headed off immediately to France. But today I paid the car tax and we're now legal to drive in the UK--until our U.S. licenses expire next month and we have to take the dreaded UK driver's license test. Uh-oh.--J.T.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Also Closed For The Season:

The local purveyor of guns and fish.

Fayence, France, January 2008
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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another day, another baguette

It has come to pass that we're in France. JT found two roundtrip tickets to Toulon from the U.K. for ₤50 (US$100). Total. He argued, how could we not come? Not a bad argument, really.

Our travels have taught us that any more than a four-day trip or so, and you really ought to rent a house or an apartment, or something with more than one room that has a coffee pot (or related coffee-making device) and a fridge so you can have coffee and French cheese on demand. So, JT started looking for a house, and early on found this house. It met my major demand of Internet access, as I was anticipating a full(ish) work schedule this week.

And so, here we are in Claviers, France, and it turns out neither one of us has work to do that can't be procrastinated. We're in a house that could easily fit four more people, so we are a bit sad about not having friends with us. (Slightly complicated by the fact that we don't really have any British friends yet, or rather, any we care to vacation with, but that's another story.) The house and village are more adorable than there are adjectives to describe them. I'll post pictures later in the week, but for now, you can see the house on the owner's web site, and here's the town square and JT in front of the church:

See the alarming lack of other people? Welcome to the south of France in January. We visited a village today in which we saw more cats (6) and dogs (2) than people (6). So, we haven't gotten stuck in too many traffic jams or waited in many queues. We have, however, learned full force the meaning of "fermé" -- closed. But three days in, we're starting to figure things out and realize there's nothing wrong with picking up something simple to cook for dinner and spending an evening in in our 5-level, 14th century house on a mountain top with the seven bottles of wine we've somehow acquired, tons of books, magazine, movies -- and each other.


We landed in Toulon on Saturday afternoon, and made it up to the house relatively without incident. A quick call from the owner (who lives in Washington state) made us feel welcome. We settled in for the evening and made half a plan for Sunday.

One of the great joys of France is the French markets, so it's not out of the question to plan one's vacation around markets. The closest -- and indeed one of the biggest -- market in the area on Sunday is in Le Muy, 30 minutes or so down the road. One hunk of Beaufort cheese, 2 euro worth of dried saucisse, 5 bananas, 4 oranges, 2 tomato/olive tapenades, one hunk of fresh butter, and two baguettes later, we felt as though we had arrived in France. (Note: Always pack a totebag or three when coming to France; you'll need it at the markets and at most stores -- you have to pay for plastic grocery bags.)

We then headed down the road to a town called Frejus, which, according to the guidebook I had in my hand at the time, has lots of Roman remains. We happened upon the Roman ampitheatre, which is undergoing refurbishment. (Just soak that in for a moment.) It's still used, according to the guidebook, "for rock concerts and bullfighting."

We meandered a bit, but soon headed for the coastal town of St. Raphael, which was like most beach destinations, but with cafes. It was then that we checked the list of restaurants our homeowner had given us. Turns out one of them was back in Frejus. Since we didn't have a phone number for the restaurant and we were only 15 minutes away, we went back. The reason we were willing to go back again was this:

A palette of crème brulees on the dessert menu. Unfortunately, we were also greeted by this sign:

Closed for renovation! So, sadly, we would not be having a palette of crème brulee on this vacation. So, we headed out for a drive down the coast, an hour or two stop in the town of Ste. Maxime for sunset and a coffee, and then a drive back to Le Muy, for this dinner.

Monday it rained and poured and rained some more. During a slight break in the weather we went for a short walk around Claviers and then a short drive to the nearby village of Bergemon, made famous most recently because the Beckhams bought a place there. (We have our suspicions about where exactly their house is, but we're not sure.) Again, our homeowner had a couple of recommendations for restaurants there; we learned they were all closed for renovation, for holidays, or for no apparent reason at all. Also, Butcher: closed. Pasta shop: closed.

So, we thought, this was the night we'd try the local pizzeria. I was actually almost excited about this because the pizzeria had a sign in the window for the week's special, which we've translated as shark pizza. That ought to be good for a laugh, at least, we thought. So, when dinnertime approached, JT headed out into the now pouring rain to get us some shark pizza. Pizzeria: closed. The One Restaurant That Didn't Have A Sign Saying It's Closed For The Month: closed. Café/bar: closed. Another note: Always pick up a pack of dried spaghetti and jar of pasta sauce for Dinner Emergencies. And Also Wine. (We had done this; no complaints here. Especially with some Beaufort cheese grated over the top -- turns any jarred sauce into something amazing.)

Tuesday we headed out to the village of Fayence for their market. This market turned out to be exactly two vendors. So … we wandered the town instead, which was absolutely lovely.

It was just before noon when we left for Sellians, a neighboring village we had heard was very charming. We figured it would be a good place to have a sit-down, three-course French lunch we'd been hearing so much about. Well, this is the village where we saw more cats than people. And, everything was closed. There was not an open giftshop, restaurant, bakery, butcher, nothing. It was adorable, though -- incredibly picturesque with windy "roads" that are really footpaths they squeeze cars down. (In the picture at right, we had just passed a parked truck on this road!)

We were eventually chased out of Sellians by a crazy, mad dog who chased us to our car then chased after our car.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration. He was a very very sweet dog who made me wish I wasn't so averse to dog slobber and wet-jumpy-dog-paws-on-my-clean-trousers. We figure it had been so long since he'd seen people that he just wanted someone to play with. He really did chase after our car, though. Who knew Bassett hounds could run?

Since everything was closed, we went back to Fayence for lunch to the one place that would have us, a little shop/deli that serves lunch called Le 8 (in the interest of completeness: 8 Rue Maurice Astier, Fayence). He was cleaning up, but took pity on us and was so incredibly friendly that I want everyone in France to go shop and eat there. John had a local beef stew called daube Provencal, with gnocchi. I had the most delicious pasta arrabiata -- hot (spicy hot) but with real flavor, not just hot for the sake of it.

We then decided to go wine tasting. I initially got us lost, but conveniently on a road with wineries. The first was called Val d'Iris. The wine maker, Anne Dor, was absolutely lovely. She and her husband have a small operation with maybe five different grapes. She spent a lot of time with us answering all our silly questions and explaining her background to us. We bought four bottles of wine from her. Then we went across the street to the Chateau des Selves. We tasted rose wines there, even though we didn't expect to like them. They turned out to be great! We limited ourselves to one bottle there (cost all of 5 euro).

The red wine we bought had me in the mood for steak. So, we went home via Bergemon and, much to my delight, boucherie: Ouvert! Pasta shop: Ouvert! So, we went home to work for 5 minutes each, write half of this now-insanely-long diary, and then dine on broiled beef from the butcher in Bergemon, gnocchi made by the pasta maker up the road, zucchini and tomato sauté, and a gorgeous red wine whose maker we met this afternoon.
Life, it is good.

Sunrise, Sunset

Sunrise from the terrace in the hilltop village of Claviers, France.

Sunset at Ste. Maxime, looking toward St. Tropez, on the Cote D'Azur.
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Monday, January 14, 2008

We ate ... what? Provence edition (probably Part I of many)

I know there are many foods in the world that I (KT) haven't eaten, but generally, there's not much on an average menu I haven't encountered before. Now, picture sitting down to dinner in a French restaurant -- in France -- where there is no menu, and the waiter just tells you your options. In French. And you don't speak French.

Here's what we ended up with:

Aperitif (before-dinner drink): Pastis

The loose description of pastis is absinthe without the hallocenogenic component. If that didn't make sense, how's this: really strong booze that tastes like black licorice. Serve cold. It was alright -- I didn't dillute mine much like you're told to, because I figured if there was less of it, it would be gone sooner. I can see trying this again, but we both ended up with killer headaches that we're blaming on the pastis. Of course, it could have been any number of other things ...

Amuse Bouche (not really, but work with me here): Toasted baguette served with anchovies in oil

I've had anchovies plenty of times -- but usually on pizza or other typical preparations. The waiter brought us the plate of bread with a small dish of what looked like an oily tapenade. I tried it, confirmed to JT that it was a lovely oily, salty, tapenade of some sort. After another bite I slowed down to dissect its flavor and had a sudden recognition of what we were eating. I waited until the bread was gone to tell JT what it was. We agreed that many things taste pretty darn good pulverized and swimming in oil.

Appetizers: Raw scallops over a green salad, and foie gras

I ordered the foie gras. I've had it before -- in small doses, the memorable ones being at Palena in our old neighborhood, and stuffed inside quail at one of our legendary cooking club dinner parties. It's now that I realize that those were pate de foie gras. This was slab o' foie gras served with toast. Actually, that's not even true: It probably was mixed and pressed in a terrine, but I don't know enough about foie gras preparations to know exactly. I was disappointed with myself for not really liking it: To me, it just tasted like cold fat without much flavor. It was a little better once it warmed up a bit. JT thought it was alright, but nothing craveable. I'll have to study for next time.

JT ordered the scallop salad. Well, not exactly. As far as we could tell, there were three options: the foie gras, escargot (after the previous incident, I'm not eating them unless I know exactly how they're prepared), and what I heard as "carpaccio de St. Jacques." I translated that as "scallops" to JT, knowing full well they'd be raw but omitting that part in translating. (Ha. I say that as if I speak French. But they call scallops St. Jacques in England, too.)

It turned out to be a lovely lettuce salad with toasted pine nuts, olive oil and vinegar, and six beautiful, raw scallops. (I'm actually pretty sure they were tossed in a bit of citrus for a few seconds, but the definitely weren't sauteed or otherwise cooked.) JT tried a small bite of scallop and then shot me a somewhat frightened look. As I wasn't particularly enjoying my foie gras, we switched plates. The strange part was that they had this red pouch thing attached in a half-moon around the scallop. I have never seen this before. I tried a small bit, and it was very delicious. However, I then started freaking myself out that this was something you serve to show the scallops are fresh but don't eat. JT argued that they wouldn't have served it if I shouldn't eat it, but you don't eat crab lungs or other disgusting bits when you are served whole crab, do you?

We eventually asked what the red bit was, but mistranslated the response as "heart." (You'd think two science writers would think logically about this for two seconds and realize that there's no way a bivalve has a heart this big, or even a heart at all.) Turns out it was the scallop roe, or egg pouch, and is considered a great delicacy.

Entrees: Scallops again, and lamb

(I'm actually done with the new-food portion of the post, but might as well finish telling you about our dinner)

I ordered the St. Jacques Provencale -- more scallops (also served the the not-a-heart-but-roe-pouch-red-thing, which was decidedly better raw than it was cooked) cooked in a herby creme fraiche sauce, and JT had an incredibly succulent piece of lamb. Both were served with sliced potatoes and cabbage sauteed in what must have been a red wine reduction -- very sweet and delicious.

Dessert: Chocolate mousse, of course. And it was superb.

Overall, it was a lovely experience, even with the new foods. I should also mention that we were the only people in the restaurant -- which had a total of five tables. It was more charming than you can imagine -- five old tables, set with a mishmash of plates and silverware, with candles at each table and a fireplace in the corner. There aren't many dining options in rural France on a Sunday night, but all you need is one, and I'm glad we found this one.

Restaurant: L'Oustaou, 68 RN 7, Le Muy, France.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Dream is Over

(Cambridge fans filled the whole lower side of one stand and part of the stand to the right. Notice the yellow-jacketed police officers on the right separating the United fans and home fans!)

Now I know the misery of an English football fan.

Saturday, KT and I went on our biggest football adventure yet. We were part of the 4000-plus Cambridge United fans who made the 2.5 hour journey to Wolverhampton for the FA Cup clash between United and the mighty Wolves of Wolverhampton. The FA Cup is the annual tournament in which almost every soccer team in England can participate--from the smallest semi-pro squad to the Goliaths of the Premier League. Cambridge had advanced to the key round where the teams from the Premier league, who had byes til now, entered the competition. While it may seem odd since they would have little chance of winning, United had hoped to draw an away game at one of the big teams because it would mean a mammoth payday, perhaps enough to buy some new players or pay a good portion of the year's budget (The teams split the money from the attendance so the possibility of 30,000-60,000 buying tickets at a Premier League stadium is a cash bonanza. Indeed, one team about to go bankrupt may have saved it yesterday with a tie of a premier league team at home, thus earning an away match at their opponents and a lot of extra money).

In any case, United drew the Wolves who play in the Championship league, one step down from the Premiere. Still, the Wolves are a major squad--one of the few automatically known by their nickname--that has been in the Premiere league and they have a historic and beautiful stadium. KT and I decided we couldn't pass up on the trip and with some friends signed up for the buses Cambridge United was offering. So did many others! We ended up with about 25 buses making the trip, which ended with a police escort to the stadium for the convoy if you can believe it. Overall, the police presence was amazing--a sad reminder that English football has a nasty history of violence among its fans. Indeed, United's fans--like most away fans at football matches--had to enter through specific gates and sit in separate parts of the stadium. Silly? Perhaps not. In the second half, police in one part of the stadium had to use their batons to keep the two sides' fans apart.
When KT and I attend United games we usually sit in the quiet main stand, not among the loud and rowdy crowds in other sections. But for the FA Cup we were among the fanatics (including our friends who wore yellow and black wigs). United fans were singing and chanting from the start, putting the home fans to shame. The Wolves only had about 10,000 fans of their own as they all expected an easy win. KT and I finally figured out some of the chants--"If you love Cambridge, Stand up!!" or "Bounce Bounce Amber Army!" (and one must jump up and down of course).
United scores--Goooooooooaaaaal!!!

As for the game itself, it was a heartbreaker. United has been playing poorly and the Wolves were clearly more skilled, but we held then off early and had some great chances to score. Then, right before the half, United scored to go up by one. We all went crazy. The second half started and time seems to slow as the Wolves had chance after to chance and finally tied the game with 20 minutes left. Still, a draw seemed likely which would have meant a money-making rematch at home in Cambridge. Then disaster. The ref made a bad call, giving the Wolves a free kick about 20 yards from goal--a Wolf passed it into the middle and a teammate headed it into the goal to take the lead with just 2 minutes left. The long bus ride home in the dark was quiet. So close.--JT

Saturday, January 5, 2008

I ate ... what? Brussels edition

The Brussels Christmas market was still hopping after Christmas. There was the usual street food -- sausages, cotton candy, etc. But Brussels kicks it up a notch. A big paper cone of french fries ("frites") with any one of 12 toppings, foot-long lengths of boudin sausage, crepes, and of course waffles. We kept seeing signs for "6 huitres". Six huitres were rather expensive (10 euro), and they turned out to be oysters, served with a small glass of champagne. High class street food, that.

We found chocolate nirvana at one stand at which we ordered a crepe (JT) and waffle (KT) with chocolate. We've learned to keep on walking when the Nutella jar or Hershey's syrup bottle is in plain view. (Nothing wrong with either of those, they just make a rather pedestrian crepe.) If you see Actual Chocolate melted in a pot, stop and order it, in whatever form you choose. You won't be disappointed.

(That stall was representing an Actual Shop, so I thought I would add it to my must-do list for Brussels. I just read the card. The shop is in Hardelot, France, a wee town I'm not likely to ever go to, unless it's on a wine run from the ferry that goes to Calais. But for the record, the shop is Vanille Fraise at 32 Avenue de la Concorde. Dang, that chocolate was good, though, and we do love French wine, hmmm ...)

Anyway, the street food that most amused me was the escargot. Those big pots are full of snails, out of their shell, in a broth. Twelve for 4 euro. By the last day I decided to be brave and give it a try. First, I lived. Second, I ate all of them. I'm not sure I truly enjoyed them -- still a little too chewy for my taste. But the winner was the broth -- nice and hot, rich, and heavily seasoned with (I think) white pepper. Very warm on a very cold day. This was my second attempt at snails; the first wasn't very successful. I'm willing to give them one more chance, though, as long as they're cooked in large amounts of butter.

Here's a close-up, for your viewing pleasure:

Probably better for me than that waffle smothered in chocolate, but I'll give you one guess as to which one tasted better.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Le Resistance!

We're heading off to France later his month just as the country is facing its biggest crisis in years: a ban on smoking in cafes. We couldn't be happier! England last year outlawed smoking in pubs and now this. But the French aren't taking this lying down. Here's one cafe owner's response:

French cafe owner rebels against smoking ban

LYON, France (AFP) - A French cafe owner put up protest art showing overflowing ashtrays and cigarette butts on Wednesday as he refused to apply a new smoking ban targeting restaurants and bars.
Christophe Cedat, owner of the Cafe 203 in Lyon, said the photo and poster-art exhibit in his smoky cafe would bring the debate surrounding the new ban into the "artistic domain" which he described as "neutral ground."
The trendy cafe's entrance displayed a banner that carried the warning: "Cultural and social experimental zone: you are exposing yourself to the threat of second-hand smoke."
A smoking ban went into force on Tuesday in cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, 11 months after the measure hit workplaces and other public areas.
After a one-day reprieve to smokers over the New Year festivities, police and public health officials began enforcing the ban on Wednesday.
Smokers who light up in cafes face fines of between 68 euros (100 dollars) to 450 euros while business owners can incur penalties of up to 750 euros for violations.
Cedrat said he would allow smokers to light up in his cafe between noon and 2 pm and plans to cover the cost of fines by selling small decorated ashtrays.

The picture above shows a cigarette-decorated table at the cafe. There's also a AFP video of the cafe owner and its patrons--you can see more of the "art" and practice your French at the same time.