Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All of France in under 12 hours!

22 August

I woke up early on the 22nd - it was a huge day of travel.  I had an 8:00 am train from Dijon to Paris, where I would meet my mom, who was arriving to CDG airport around 10:00 am.  Now I know what you're thinking here.  "But Val, you never said anything about your mom coming on this trip!"  How right you are.  When my friend with whom I planned this trip backed out at the last minute, my mom offered the suggestion that she could come out and join me for a couple of weeks.  Now, I should tell you, my mother is not an impulsive person.  Deciding to come spend three weeks in Europe on just a couple of weeks notice was a huge decision.  But it worked out, and I'm so glad that it did!

Even if my mom hadn't been flying into Paris today, I would have passed through the city because I had planned to take the train from Dijon to Bayonne which, if you look at a map of France, happen to be at opposite ends of the country - so the easiest route was to connect through Paris.

And I have to say, after three weeks in a new, unfamiliar city every few days, it was wonderful to visit a city where I knew the general layout of the town, where things were familiar.  When I got off the train at the gare de Lyon and headed down into the metro, it smelled like homecoming.  I don't think I could have told you what the metro smelled like, or even that it had a precise odor before that moment, but just that little hint of something familiar was so comforting.

I met my mom at the gare de Montparnasse because our train to Bayonne would be leaving from there in the afternoon.  She made it out from the airport without a hitch, and we checked our luggage in an overpriced locker and headed out to see a little of the city.  We found a grocery store (that was open on a Sunday!) for some yogurt, and then walked down to the Champ du Mars because my mom wanted to see the Eiffel tower to help prove to herself that she was really there.


During my hour-long train ride to Paris, I spent some time with my pâtisserie guide that was my constant companion in 2008.  I discovered there are branches of Pierre Hermé (home of the best macarons on Earth) and Poilâne (perhaps the most famous bakery in France - and that's saying something) in the 15e arrondissement (15th district of Paris, adjacent to the Champ du Mars), not too far out of our way.  PH was, sadly, closed for summer vacation - this is why I am so glad that my real time in Paris was in September! - but Poilâne was open, so we stopped in for half a loaf of pain de seigle:


Poilâne is perhaps best known for their sourdough, but I can tell you that their pain de seigle (rye bread) is excellent as well - full of tangy, barely sweet rye flavor, with a moist crumb and a crisp crust.  We kept the bread for the train, and stopped in another small boulangerie for a sandwich and a quiche, both of which were decidedly mediocre - but we ate them on a bench on the Avenue de Suffren, just down the street from my old haunt, the BU center, so I wasn't complaining!

After lunch, we stopped in another grocery for some cheese and more yogurt for the train, and then headed back to the gare de Montparnasse to make our way down to Basque country.  This was one of my longest train rides - about five hours long on the TGV, the same as my trip from Bruxelles to Avignon.  I hadn't taken many pictures from the train throughout this trip, and once my mom arrived, I don't think I took even one more - she was a much more thorough photographer of the countryside we passed through than I ever was.  The ride was smooth and easy - though it was such a long ride, we were only the third stop!  We ate our bread and cheese and yogurt, and I wrote in my journal and deleted duplicate photographs.

We arrived in Bayonne around 9:00 pm.  Luckily, our hotel was a short five-minute walk away from the train station.  When we got to our room, we discovered we had the most amazing view out the window over the Adour river and the pont St-Esprit:


The river was incredible.  We weren't more than a few miles away from the Atlantic ocean, and river went up and down with the tides each day.  I had never seen a tidal river before, and watching the current of the river switch back and forth, so that half of the time the water was rushing upstream, was so unexpected and so cool.

Coming soon: The answer to the age old question, "When do red and green not make Christmas colors?"

A bientôt,

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dijon II

21 August 

After a slow morning in the hotel room getting ready, I headed out around 10 am to begin my second and final day in Dijon.  It was Saturday, which means everyone and their brother heads to the markets.  The main market in Dijon is les Halles, and after having visited a number of cities where I hadn't seen any market to speak of (Strasbourg and Colmar, I'm looking at you), I was excited to find the Halles of Dijon were an excellent spot for my favorite French pastime, soaking in the sights and smells and sounds of a market.


Many of the Halles that I visited around France were impressive structures, and the Dijon Halles were no exception.  The building was designed by a man born in Dijon, maybe you've heard of him - Gustav Eiffel?


Within les Halles were rows upon rows of vendors selling fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries, cheeses and dairy products, fish and shellfish, fresh meats and charcuterie, herbs and spices, even prepared dishes: so much to feast your eyes and nose - and eventually your mouth - on.  On Saturdays, the streets around les Halles are filled with vendors, too: some selling more alimentary products, and others with books, clothes, or brocante - second hand items too nice to be considered junk, exactly, but too young to qualify as "antiques."

I bought myself brunch - a crisp baguette, a couple of nectarines and apricots, a pot or two of yogurt, and a wedge of époisse cuvée, a local favorite cheese:


I headed out to a nearby bench in a small park to eat my brunch.  Though I asked the fruit vendor for the fruits to be "bien mûres" (very ripe), they were just a shade past hard and something of a disappointment.  The époisse was fermented (that's what cuvée means), and rather pungent.  Not being a huge fan of stinky cheese, it was a little too strong for me, even with the bread to mellow it out a little.

Now I have a confession to make.  This weekend marked the half-way point for my trip, and after three weeks I was starting to get a little worn down.  It's quite the dilemma, going on a long adventure and visiting a new place every few days.  There's so much ground to cover, and so many things to see, that you feel guilty taking time to relax and not run off for your next once-in-a-lifetime experience.  By the time I finished my meal, I was feeling rather hot and cranky.  I probably should have gone back to the hotel to take a nap, but this was my last day in Dijon, and mon Dieu, I was going to see as much of the city as I could if it killed me.

Thank goodness for the église Saint-Benigne, which offered me shelter from the heat under its intricate tiled roof so prevalent in the region:


When I couldn't take the Adventuring, any more, I ducked inside the church to write some postcards and get up to date with my journal.  The church was almost empty, with just the occasional quiet tourist sauntering around.  As I sat writing in the simple Gothic interior, from some hidden recess the church was filled with the sweet harmonies of a men's choir practicing their hymns.  Their somber melodies reverberated off the stone walls and sent chills up my spine.  To think how many thousands of singers have been singing there for how many hundreds of years... it was a pretty powerful moment.

When the singing stopped, and I finally decided it was time to head out, the first order of business was to get myself un café to wake me up, and then, clearly, to get myself some glace (ice cream) to cool me down after drinking the hot coffee.  I chose a flavor called Bulgare-groseille:


I'm not sure what makes Bulgarian currants more special than any other variety, but I can tell you this was kind of an unusual ice cream.  Rather than the tangy, fruity, currant-y flavor I might have expected, instead it tasted more like raw sugary pie dough with just a hint of fruitiness.  Either way, it was refreshing!

Sufficiently revived with café and refreshed with glace, I decided to head to the Musée des Beaux Arts.  Admittance to the museum was free - pretty unusual in France, so definitely something to take advantage of.  It was kind of an unusual collection - a smattering of Renaissance paintings from Italy, Germany, and France; a very strange collection of donated twentieth century works; and the crowning glory of the museum, rather literally, the tombs of Jean sans Peur and Philippe le Hardi (John the Fearless and Philip the Bold, if you prefer their English names), two Dukes of Bourgogne during the fifteenth century.  Their tombs really give a sense of how great their material wealth and power must have been:

Jean sans Peur, resting eternally with Margaret of Bavaria
Around the bottom of Philippe's tomb was a whole entourage of marble pleurants (mourners, or literally, criers), each around 15 inches tall, to weep with sorrow at the loss of the Duke's life for eternity.  There were mourners around the base of Jean's tomb as well, but they are currently on loan to another museum.

So small yet so detailed!
After leaving the museum, I had a little time to kill before dinner, which I spent in the lovely jardin Darcy, but sadly there were no impromptu spectacles to entertain me.  Around seven, I headed back into town to eat.

Now, I am sorry to tell you this was not my best meal in France.  I was really excited to eat at this restaurant - as I was going around, I found this little hole in the wall with lots of Routard recommendation stickers in the windows, just a little ways off of the Place de la Libération, the large plaza with the fountains in front of the former Ducal palace.  It fit all of my criteria for choosing a great restaurant, including the added bonus of offering the classic local dishes as well as something a little more esoteric.  I still want to believe it's a great restaurant, but I made the terrible mistake of ordering tripe for both the entrée and plat.

I had read a fair amount about tripe before coming to France.  My first introduction was probably reading Rabelais's Gargantua my senior year of college in a class about dinners and banquets in French literature.  Tripe must have been one of the favorites of Rabelais (noted himself as quite the gastronome) because as I recall, his characters are always eating tripe, especially for special occasions.  After being pleasantly surprised by maatche and pig's feet, I wanted to try tripe and see what all the fuss was about - and this was one of the first restaurants I noticed with tripe on the menu.

This was another small restaurant with a very genial plainclothes waiter, who went to great trouble to make sure I understood everything on the menu, explaining each item one by one if I didn't know what it was.  Too bad I still managed to order something without knowing exactly what it was - but that was my mistake for making a faulty assumption.  I started off with another kir - again, it was super fruity and sweet, almost like a cherry wine but sweeter.  Quite delicious.  To go with the meal, I had a glass of Domaine de la Cras 2002, which the waiter explained, if I understood him correctly, was the last vineyard still a part of Dijon proper, so it's about the local-est wine I could get.  It was a pinot noir with a very deep, almost purple color (what a contrast from the brighter, redder pinot in Alsace!).  The nose was, according to my notes, "deep," with notes of dark chocolate and blackberry.  The flavor had a little acid that built over time, reminiscent of rhubarb or green apple, but it wasn't overly tannic.  A nice, full-bodied wine.

Note that once again in Dijon, there's no mustard pot on the dinner table
The first dish I ordered was the cassolette de pieds et tripe de veau à la tomate:


In English, the dish would be called something like "Casserole of veal tripe and feet in a tomato sauce."  The sauce was thick, and tasted a little like... barnyard.  That's probably the most appetizing way I can describe it.  The tripe itself was a little chewy and kind of melted on the tongue, with a serious barnyard aftertaste.  The waiter told me that veal tripe is a little more delicate than that of a full grown cow... I'm just as glad I got the lighter version.  After finishing the small casserole, I was glad to be done with my tripe experiment and move on to a better main course.

But then, I had ordered the andouillette:


Andouillette (pronounced on-doo-ee-yet) is a sausage that, when qualified with the addition of de Mâcon at the end (meaning 'from Mâcon,' a nearby town), is made of pork and typically served with a creamy mustard sauce, at least according to my French food guidebook.  However, just plain andouillette is a sausage stuffed with... tripe. This was served with shallots and mustard.  In this case, the tangy, bitter mustard seed masked the barnyardiness a little, but it was definitely still there. The dish also came with scalloped potatoes under a cheesy sauce.

While most of the foods I tried for the first time on this trip were excellent, tripe was definitely not for me.  But that's okay, it leaves more for Rabelais and his tripe-ingurgitating buddies.  I didn't order a dessert, but they offered me a digestif of Crème de cassis (the classic blackberry eau de vie) and liqueur de Marne (a plum based liqueur).  It was strong but not unpleasant with a definite kick in the back of the throat.  The pruny flavor was definitely there - it helped me identify the flavor I had tasted the night before in my coupe Bourguinonne.

The walk back to the hotel as the sun was setting on the city was pretty magical, once again:


But I didn't linger.  I had to get back to my room to pack up and get ready to trek to the opposite end of the country the next day.

Coming soon: The day I saw all of France in under 10 hours!

A bientôt,

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dijon I

20 August

The train from Besançon to Dijon was about an hour long.  I had chosen a hotel very near to the train station, so after dropping my luggage in my room, I headed into town to spend the afternoon getting to know the heart of the former duchy of Bourgogne.  In the historic town center, the streets are lined with fluttering ensigns:


I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast except for a couple of peaches picked up in the market in Besançon, but it was still way too early for dinner, so when I passed a Mulot et Petitjean, I had to step inside to ogle the comely comestibles.


There are a few branches of the well-known and well-respected Mulot & Petitjean around Dijon, which was founded in 1796 and today offers all of the Burgundian pastry specialties - most notably, pains d'épices and nonnettes:

Oozing ooey gooey cassis goodness
Nonnette translates as "little nun;" these are mini spiced buns that taste similar to the region's famous pain d'épices.  They may be described as natures (plain), or have a sweet fruity filling.  I chose a package of nonnettes au cassis - ones filled with the region's most popular fruit (after, perhaps, the grape): blackcurrant.  Unlike the pain d'épices I had gotten in Strasbourg, these little treats were moister and sweeter, with a crisp sugary shell.  But the real star was the super sweet gelée de cassis (blackcurrant jelly) in the middle, which added a great freshness.  Very tasty, although definitely a little heavy in the sugar content, even for my sweet tooth!

After nibbling on a little sustenance, I walked down to the heart of Dijon, the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne (Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgandy).  The Duchy of Burgandy was a major player in the medieval Europe, and the former seat of the Dukes' power is now the Hôtel de Ville (city hall, essentially) and the Musée des Beaux Arts.  In front of the Palace there is a huge open Place, filled with café tables and water fountains just perfect for cooling off on a hot summer's day.



This little cutie was quite enamored of the tall fountains.  He was thoroughly wet - and thoroughly displeased - when his father decided it was time for them to leave.

Water that shoots up??? I've never seen that before.
Dijon is home to more half-timbered buildings, like the ones I had seen in Alsace.


The Maison de Millière, below, was built in 1483.  In more recent years, it has appeared in a number of films, including Gerard Depardieu's Cyrano de Bergerac in 1990.  It almost looks more like a movie set than a real building!

Maison Millière
Another famous facade in Dijon is that of the église Notre Dame:


I almost wish it had been raining to see these guys in action
Unlike Strasbourg, where I walked around in circles no matter where I was trying to go and kept ending up in the wrong place over and over again, in Dijon I found it remarkably easy to find my way around - I had no trouble getting where I meant to be, despite wandering at random.  Eventually I had wandered long enough that I could head to dinner.  When looking for a great restaurant in France, it's best to go with one that doesn't begin their dinner service until 7:00 at the earliest.  I chose Le Théatre des Sens for dinner this evening.  I'm glad I did - it was a small establishment - 8-10 tables, one server, and, as far as I could tell, one man in the kitchen.  The waiter was very friendly and talkative, and we had a nice chat about my trip across France.

Dijon was the one city in France where I opted to have an apératif, a before-dinner drink, with my meal.  I ordered the quintessential French apéro, a kir.  A kir is white wine with with Crème de Cassis, an eau-de-vie made from the ubiquitous Burgundian blackcurrant.  (As a side note, a Kir Royale uses champagne in place of the white wine.) I had had a kir before in Paris, but it was no comparison to this delicious drink, which was super sweet and fruity - it didn't taste like alcohol, it tasted like candy.  It had a nice tart cherry flavor and a gorgeous ruby red color.  Um, yum.  I'll have one now, please.

With my kir, I was served an amuse gueule:


An amuse gueule is, literally, something to amuse the throat; it's a cousin to the amuse bouche - basically an hors d'oeuvre.  This one was little slices of bread topped with cucumber, lettuce, parsley, and bacon in a slightly acidic creamy sauce.  The sweetness of the bread was a nice balance to the sour topping, but it could have used a little crunch to push it to the next level.

If I was going to order escargots during this trip, this would have been the place to do it.  Burgundian snails are prized above all others in France, and they were listed in the entrée section of every menu I saw.  However, given my experience with escargots in 2008, I opted to stay away from the much esteemed gastronomic gastropods.  I started with another Burgundian favorite, Oeufs en meurette:


Egg heaven.  These were two eggs poached perfectly in red wine, and served in a jus of red wine, mushrooms, onions, bacon, and mustard.  The whites of the eggs were firm and chewy, but the yolks were runny, while the sauce was a thick, syrupy texture with a deep, lovingly developed flavor that had just soaked into the egg.  Eaten on the crusty slices of toasted bread, the dish was a perfect mix of crunch and chew with an awesome rich, winey, earthy flavor.  I don't know why anyone would want to order snails when this is on the menu!

I drank a glass of Bourgogne Pinot noir.  It had a very similar flavor profile to the oeufs, but much drier and more acidic.  It had some dark fruity notes, like sweet cherry and blackcurrant, with just a little sweetness and a hint of something metallic.  Not bad, but a little too tannic for my taste.

For my plat, I selected the poulet façon Gaston Gérard:


Gaston Gérard was the mayor of Dijon from 1915-1929.  As the story goes, his wife first prepared this dish in 1930, and the rest, as they say, is history.  This is definitely the preferred preparation for chicken in Dijon - it shows up on menus all over the city.  The chicken is cooked in oil or butter, and then a sauce is made from the pan drippings, cheese, cream, Burgundian white wine, and mustard.  (As an aside - after seeing little pots of mustard on all the tables in restaurants in Lyon and Alsace, I was surprised to find no mustard on the table in Dijon, a city that most Americans know solely for its relationship to mustard.  Don't get me wrong, there are mustard shops all over the city, and even a mustard museum, but no mustard pots on the table.  But I digress.)  This dish included the drumstick and thigh and came with three dollops of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes.  The dish was wonderfully cheesy, but the cheese did not overpower the excellent chicken flavor - perhaps it was made with famed poulet de Bresse?  Wherever the chicken came from, it was delicious - definitely something I would order again.

By the time I'd worked through the main course, all I could manage for dessert was the coupe Bourguignonne:


This coupe came with two sorbets: glace de Marne, and glace de cassis.  The cassis is the deep burgandy colored ball, which had a strong fruity flavor - very pleasant.  I wasn't as fond of the Marne, which tasted a little like prunes, a little like industrial cleaner, and a lot like a strong liqueur.  There were also a few cherries tossed on top that had been spiked in some kind of liqueur and left a strong alcoholic aftertaste.  It was not bad, but not my favorite dessert.  Overall, however, it was an excellent meal - I would be glad to eat here again.

After dinner, I headed back in the direction of my hotel.  The sun was starting to set, and the city was beautiful as it started to light up.

Porte Guillaume, in the Place Darcy
I passed through the Place Darcy, and when I noticed how beautiful the enormous fountain in the Jardin Darcy looked, I wanted to stop in and take a few photos.  A native of Dijon would probably tell you the Place and Jardin are named for Henry Darcy, a Dijon-born engineer from the 19th Century, but I'm pretty confident it's an homage to Jane Austen, just as it should be.


Note the moon in the sky!
In the first picture, did you notice the yellow glow just above the staircase on the left?  I did, too, and wondered what it was.  Turned out to be an impromptu spectacle (performance) in the park.  These two actors did a number of short comedic skits, each with a silly "moral" at the end - like, "don't marry a woman, don't marry a man... marry a bird, it's so much more interesting!"  In one of the first skits I saw, the man on the left, seated, was a doctor in a facility for idiots, and the man standing on the right had been sent by his boss to be tested to see if he was an idiot.  When he asked to see the idiots, the doctor gestured to the audience - but then explained that we were very nice idiots.  By the end of the skit, the patient had sufficiently proven his idiocy and joined the audience.

Ils sont tous les imbeciles?... Ils ont l'air gentil !
While I don't think I caught every word, I understood enough to get the general idea for each of the skits, some of which were very silly indeed.  I watched for maybe 45 minutes - what a fun thing to stumble across!

Coming soon: Dijon part deux, day of markets and tombs and tripes - yes, that's right, all in the plural.

A bientôt,

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Besançon

19 August

After breakfast and finishing repacking my bag, I checked out of the Colmar hostel around 10 am.  The typical Alsatian sunny summer weather finally decided to show its face - for the first time since I arrived in Alsace four days earlier, the weather was gorgeous.  I took the bus to the train station, and then hopped on a train to Mulhouse where I had an hour to kill before continuing on to Besançon.  It was around noon, so I stopped in a sit-down restaurant for a pleasant lunch.  I ordered standard French lunch fare, a quiche lorraine:


Lorraine is the région of France immediately to the West of Alsace, and since I was on my way out of Alsace (Mulhouse is at the southern tip of Alsace, while Besançon is in Franche-Comté) I figured this was as close as I was going to be to Lorraine and I ought to try some of their most famous namesake dish.  Ordering a quiche lorraine means that you'll be getting a quiche with bacon in it.  This one had plenty of bacon - more than I would have predicted - but when is having extra bacon a problem???  The quiche was served warm, and while it was not particularly exciting, it was a great simple lunch.  It also came with a simple salad and a glass of Riesling, which was nice but not as complex as the excellent Riesling I had tasted the day before at the Domaine Viticole de la ville de Colmar.

After lunch, it was a quick 1-1/2 hour train ride into Besançon.  The countryside was breathtaking - this région borders Switzerland, and once again I found myself passing through breathtaking verdant rolling hills, crystal rivers, and rocky cliffs - pretty awe-inspiring stuff.

Now, before I continue, I think I should talk a little bit about how I ended up in the unlikely tourist destination of Franche-Comté on my way to Besançon.  I had not originally anticipated stopping in this region, and while I had done some research on the traditional foods and culture of most places I visited, I knew basically nothing about Besançon.  Not that I could have easily found out much, anyway - I was traveling without a computer (or any other means to access the internet), and the guidebook I had with me didn't even mention the town (lame, Fodor's, very lame).  I think I assumed that it was a small, industrial town largely reconstructed post WWII - don't ask me how I got this into my head.

However, my senior year at Hopkins, I met a wonderful exchange student who had grown up in Besançon.  I had spoken to Elise before coming to France this summer, and we happened to get in touch while I was in Strasbourg.  Long story short, Besançon lies right in between Colmar and Dijon, and I had an extra day I was planning to spend in Bourgogne, so when Elise invited me to come and spend a night with her in Besançon, we both made last-minute changes to our plans.  I am so glad that I did - Besançon was nothing like I mistakenly anticipated, it is beautiful and charming.

WWII memorial, just outside the train station
When I arrived at the train station, I got a map of the city from the information desk and then found my way to the office where Elise was working over the summer.  Besançon sits in the middle of a boucle of the Doubs - that is to say, the Doubs river almost makes a complete circular loop around a steep hill, and the city is situated in the middle of this loop on the hill as well as on the opposite bank.  To get to Elise's office, I wended my way around the river:



The tall hill and unusual river loop must have made for a very strategic location; atop the hill sits the Citadel, and remnants of walls and fortifications are visible all over the city.  When Elise got off work, we headed to her apartment to drop off my luggage, and then headed up to see the Citadel.


As always, the effort of a hike was rewarded with some incredible vistas of the surrounding countryside:


During our walk through the city, Elise pointed out all of the famous landmarks and monuments.  It's wonderful to visit a town with a native tour guide who knows about all of the history and can explain what makes the city special and unique.  When we finally got up to the Citadel, we passed over the former moat to get inside the first set of walls:

See the fence on the bridge?  Take a good look, because that's probably the only guardrail in France.
I say the first set of walls because there is, in fact, a second set of walls within the first set.  Elise told me that inside the second walls, there is a zoo.  You had to pay to go into the zoo, so we chose to instead enjoy the gorgeous summer evening on a lawn within the first set of walls, overlooking the city and a stage where a group was - loudly - preparing for a concert that evening, checking their sound system or something like that.


We sat and chatted for an hour or two as the sun sank lower and the band kept playing.  Eventually we decided to head down again to find some dinner.  We passed again over the old moat:


And I happened to look down, and are those... monkeys???


Why yes, yes they are.  Evidently not all of the animals reside within the confines of the zoo.  There was a sign posted along the fence (and now we know why a fence was necessary - to prevent the children from falling into the monkey habitat) stating that this is "the most important group of males in the world."  (I can think of some other males who would do well to learn that these monkeys are in fact the most important members of their sex in the world - but I digress.)  Apparently, there are only about 200 members of this species left, all in captivity.  However, a number of zoos across Europe are working on a serious breeding program to increase their numbers.  In Besançon, they have seven males who are "retired" - that is, their genes appear too frequently in the current gene pool to still be useful in the reproduction program, so they have come here to be old bachelors together, who desire nothing more than just an ordinary chance to live exactly as they like and do precisely as they want, just average males are they, of no eccentric whim, who like to live their life, free of strife, doing whatever each thinks is best for him - just ordinary males.  (My Fair Lady?  Anyone???)

One final view over the city before we head down to find something to eat:


When Elise found out I was coming, she asked around to find the best traditional Franche-Comtoise restaurant in town, and a friend recommended an excellent restaurant to her.  We found the restaurant, but hélas!  It was closed for the rest of August for summer vacation.  So we had to look a little further.  We examined a lot of menus, and finally decided to go with Lucullus, which offered an authentic traditional Franche-Comtoise prix-fixe menu.  It began with the salade de Comté:


The salade had cubes of Comté cheese (which, I should note, is evidently the most popular cheese in France), toasted cashew slices, and grapes.  The cheese was mellow with a nutty sweetness that spread throughout the mouth without overwhelming the palate.  The grapes added a fresh sweetness to the salad while the nuts brought a satisfying crunch to the bite.  The lettuce was dressed in a great tangy vinaigrette.

Before we move on, I need to talk about the wine.  One of the three départments of Franche-Comté (kind of like how US states are divided into counties) is Jura.  The wine from Jura is not red or white - it's yellow.  I mean really, this is called vin jaune.  The preparation of this wine is pretty intense - it is made from Savignin grapes using a production method similar to that of Spanish sherry, though it is not a fortified wine.  It is aged for at least six years in a barrel under a layer of yeast which gives it eponymous golden amber color.  At the end of the long aging, only 62% of the original wine still remains in the barrel, the rest having evaporated.  The wine is bottled in unique 62cl bottles (the standard bottle in France is 75cl) called a clavelin.  This wine was unlike any other I tasted in France - the nose almost seems fortified, and the taste is had notes of caramel, walnuts, and... gasoline?  Though not fortified, it had a lot of round, deep flavor not unlike a Spanish sherry.  It pairs excellently with Comté.  Definitely something to try the next time you find yourself in the Jura!

For my plat, I ordered the Saucisse de Morteau au vin jaune et cancoillotte:


Before going to dinner, Elise said to me, "On mange des légumes au sud.  Ici, on mange de saucisson, de pomme de terre, et de fromage."  (We eat vegetables in the South.  Here, we eat sausage, potatoes, and cheese.)  It's true - this is a far cry from the crudités and ratatouilles on offer in Provence - this is much heavier, heartier fare.  Saucisse de Morteau is a sausage from the nearby village of Morteau.  In this case, the au vin jaune means that the yellow wine was used when cooking the sausage.  Cancoillotte is a local runny cheese, typically served melted as it was here.  The dish also came with crisp roasted potatoes.  The sausage and potatoes were to be dipped in the cancoillotte, which added a wonderful tangy creaminess to the bold meatiness of the sausage and the perfect golden sweet bite of the potato.  This is not food for the faint of heart (or for those looking to avoid blocked coronary arteries!) - the flavors were intense and an excellent match for the strong vin jaune.  Yum.

Finally, for dessert I opted for the simple pots de crème:


These decadent bowls of thick creamy custard were delicious in their simplicity.  The flavor was a perfect sweet vanilla - a vanilla that stood up and loudly announced its presence.  The crème was served cool, but not cold.  Lovely.

It was a fun meal, and it was wonderful to get to share it with Elise.  It wasn't every night that I was so lucky as to have a local citizen dine with me to tell me if the meal was up to snuff with what they grew up eating!

After dinner, we headed back to the apartment and crashed pretty quickly.  Before you think I'm too lame, I should remind you we probably didn't get to the restaurant till 8:00 pm or later, and we must have left around 10:30.  When we got back to the apartment, it was probably close to 11:00, which, after the longggg days of this trip, was a pretty standard bed time for me!

20 August

We woke up the next morning and headed out to a few boulangeries to look for something local for breakfast.  Finally we found our winner in a bakery tucked on the way out of town, next to the river.  After picking up something to nosh on, we sauntered along the banks of the river as it jogs its way around the hill - note the citadel on top of the bank to the right in the picture below!

Coucou, Elise!
It's a pretty spectacular walk.  There are pathways along the bank of the river (which Elise told me had been totally covered in water a few days earlier - the rain I had in Alsace was here, too, but I'm so glad the water level had receded in time for me to enjoy the paths!), interspersed with plenty of benches and the occasional small park.  After walking for a ways, we sat down on one of the benches facing the river to eat our galettes comtoises:


This was a thinnish (maybe as thick as an American pancake) round pastry, about 18 cm in diameter.  But don't let the shape fool you - this is much closer to the European standard for a pancake than the American counterpart.  The texture was dense and eggy, and the flavor was custard-like with a strong fleur d'orange kick.  Actually that sounds pretty great, I'll have another one now, please!

Following our late breakfast, we headed back to the apartment to grab my baggage, and then Elise walked with me to the train station before heading to work for the afternoon.  It was great to get the chance to see Elise and her hometown briefly - I am so glad that our timing worked out and we could make it happen!  Elise, tu me manques !  J'espère que tout va bien en Allemagne.  Je t'embrasse très fort !

Coming soon: Dijon part I, where the children play in fountains, and the eggs are poached in wine, and after dark we all head to the Place or Parc Darcy.

A bientôt,

Monday, November 8, 2010

Colmar

17 August

While I generally would prefer to take the train in the morning and have the whole afternoon in a new city, the hostel in Colmar wasn't open for check-in before 5:00 pm, so I didn't leave Strasbourg until about 4:00 pm.  It was a short train ride - just half an hour - to get into Colmar.  After my first luggage fiasco in Aix, I didn't want to take any chances rolling my luggage over any more cobblestones than necessary, so from the train station in Colmar I took a bus to my hostel.  The hostel was about a kilometer outside of town, and it wouldn't let me reserve a room in advance, so I was a little nervous as to whether they would have space... but I needn't have worried.  They had so much space that I was able to spend an extra 5€ per night to have a private room, which brought the grand total to about 19€ per night... sheets not included.  I'm glad I brought my own!

Once I had taken my luggage to the room and familiarized myself a little with a map of Colmar, I headed into town to find a restaurant for dinner.  I asked at the tourist office for a good spot to get some choucroute - in English, sourkraut, but it's so much more than that - and the woman behind the desk told me all the local restaurants had it.  Not exactly the response I was looking for - what happened to locals being able to give you the best recommendations??  But after my trip, if there's one thing I know how to do in France, it's find a good restaurant.  One of the first spots I found was this impressive building:


The Maison des Têtes, or House of Heads, gets its name from the many small carved heads decorating the facade of the building.  It was built in 1609 by a merchant who would go on to become mayor of Colmar 14 years later.  Today it is a hotel and restaurant.  The menu looked promising and did offer my choucroute, but there was an extra requirement for today's dinner: the restaurant needed to be on the Place de l'Ancienne Douane (the Plaza of the old Custom's House).  It was Tuesday evening, and at 8:30 pm every Tuesday evening in the summer there is traditional Alsatian folk music and dancing on the Place de l'Ancienne Douane, and I wanted to be nearby and able to see it.  So I made a reservation for the next night at the Maison des Têtes, and continued on to the Place.

Now, in general, I would never recommend choosing a restaurant right on a big Place - you're much more likely to find a good meal a little further off the beaten path.  And the food at the restaurant I chose was no exception to this meal; it was very mediocre.  I started with a planchette de charcuterie:


Planchette means board, and charcuterie is essentially like deli meats - hams, sausages, cold cuts.  In this case, there were three meats: jambon cuit ("cooked ham"), jambon cru ("raw ham"), and lard fumé ("smoked bacon").  The cooked ham (covering most of the board in this photo) tasted a little saltier than your standard American deli sliced ham, but was about as interesting.  The raw ham (the slices topped with a cornichon, or mini-pickle), which had been cured and smoked, had a strong smoky flavor, almost like a campfire, which drowned out the flavor of the pork, I thought.  It was better than the cooked variety, but not great.  The bacon smelled sweet, like brown sugar, and had a sweet, smoky taste, kind of like a sugar cured ham.  It wasn't bad, but again, it wasn't very interesting.

The real reason I think I chose this restaurant, though, was for the main course, which could be served with five crus de vignoble:


That's right, a flight of five Alsatian wines to get a taste of the region.  The wines, from left to right, are:
  • Riquewihr-Edel: One of the few wines produced in Alsace from a blend of grape varietals, this wine had a fruity, floral nose, a little citrus in the taste, and a little astringency in the finish.
  • Riesling: Along with Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot gris, Riesling is one of the "noble grapes" of Alsace.  This wine was a little greener than the Edel both in color and flavor, and had a much smoother finish with a nice, bright acidity.
  • Tokay Pinot Gris: The "Tokay" label is left over from the fact that this grape was brought to Alsace from rootstock in Hungary.  This wine had a buttery nose with a round sweet flavor with a hint of anise in the finish.  This wine was a little spicy and, according to my notes, a little "funky."
  • Gewürtztraminer:  This full-bodied wine had a strong, spicy, sweet taste, with flavors like Gala apple, cinnamon, and bourbon.  It was a little too sweet for my taste.
  • Pinot Noir: The only red wine produced in Alsace, this Pinot noir had notes of red fruits like cranberries and tart cherries, as well as a woodsy flavor.  This is a very light red wine - if you're looking for something fuller-bodied, head west to Bourgogne!
The main course that came with all this wine was a flammekueche:


Flammekeuche, or tarte flambée in French, is kind of like a super-thin crust pizza, only with no sauce, and instead of cheese there's cream.  The traditional toppings are onions and bacon, though you'll find many other toppings available as well.  I would have preferred if the onions had been cooked a little before being thrown on top - they were a little too raw for me.  The bacon added smokiness to the dish.  The crisp crust with the light, airy, barely-cheesy cream was a nice combination.  If this had been made with top-quality ingredients, it would have been a knock-out, but even as it was it was pretty tasty.

Around 8:15 pm, the spectacle started, though there were enough other tourists with the same plan that I had to watch the music and dancing that it wasn't easy to see very much.  See the red and white blurs?  Those are couples whirling around a dance floor.  The music was fun, though, and the dancers made a point of involving the crowd - for a few of the dances, the dancers went into the crowd to find a new partner to join in the dance.


I didn't want to stay too long as it was quickly getting darker and I had a long walk back to the hostel along a somewhat deserted road.

18 August

I had breakfast in the hostel, then headed into town around 9:30.  It was raining again, so I decided to visit the Musée d'Unterlinden, the major art museum in Colmar.  The museum's best known piece is Grünewald's Issenheim Altarpiece, which has multiple levels of displays depending on which wings of the altarpiece are opened to show different scenes according to different important liturgical dates.  The best known of these is the hideous, rotting corpse of Christ, twisted and mangled on the cross just after his death.  The museum is in an old convent, and the famous altarpiece is set up in the chapel in an arrangement that successfully shows how the many facets of the altarpiece fit together.  It was a powerful exhibit.

You can see other views of the altarpiece extending towards the apse, beyond the dead Christ figure
Beyond the Altarpiece, the museum had a very nice collection of 15th and 16th century German painting and sculpture art, as well as rooms of Alsatian furniture and armor, and then finally, a modern room with a couple of Picassos.  (What European art museum doesn't have a couple of Picassos???)

After the museum, I decided to find some lunch.  I stepped into a small salon du thé (literally, tea room - generally, these are small eateries serving tea and light lunch-type fare) where I ordered a tarte aux oignons et salade verte, and a thé jasmin:


The tarte aux oignons (literally, onion tart) was excellent.  It was not unlike a quiche, baked in a this, crisp pastry crust and served hot and fresh.  It was filled with sweet caramelized white onions in a cream-based filling.  I love cooked onions, and this dish really showed them off at their best.  The salad (called a salade verte, or green salad, to differentiate it from a salade composée, or composed salad, which would have many more ingredients than just lettuce and tomatoes) was dressed in a nice, standard acidic dressing.  The tea was mildly jasmine, and very forgettable.

After lunch, I decided I needed a little something sweet to finish, so I visited a pâtisserie called Sorbier where I picked up a slice of tarte aux myrtilles:

tiny blueberry goodness on a crust
Myrtilles are tiny wild blueberries, and a tarte, as you may have discerned, is anything that is served with a thin pastry crust as the bottom level - just like a tart in English.  In this case, the crust was an excellent pâte sucré, or sweet dough, which is often used for dessert tarts.  This one was sweet and just a little crunchy, a perfect foil for the tons of tiny berries that were bursting with juice.  The berries were very sweet, but had a nice fresh tartness as well.  I am not always a huge fan of blueberry pie, but this was one of the best desserts I had during my trip.  I wouldn't normally recommend going to France in August because so many shops and restaurants are closed for a few weeks for summer vacation, but I'm sure you can't get this tarte any time except for when the myrtilles are in season, so I'm so glad I was around at the right time to taste it!

After having sufficiently gorged myself, I set out to walk around Colmar and get to see some more of the town.  I noticed a sign for a dégustation du vin (wine tasting) at 5 pm outside the Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar.

Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar
I signed up for the tasting for 5€, and then spent the next few hours enjoying how cute Colmar is.  The town is filled with half-timbered architecture, some of which dates back as far as the 16th Century!

Maison Pfister, built in 1537
Why are there so many Irish pubs in France??? They're everywhere!


In addition to the half-timbered buildings, I also saw that perennial Colmar favorite, the Manneken Pis:

Really?  And he's still nekkid??
That is to say, the reproduction of the "Oldest Bourgeois citizen of Brussels" that was given to Colmar in the fourth year of the liberation to remember the oppression of both Belgians and Alsatians by the Germans (Alsace had been a part of Germany from the 1870s until 1944), and in honor of the "unalterable Belgian gaiety" and the "courageous Alsatian good humor."  At least, that's according to the long inscription on the fountain.

Around 5:00, I headed to the dégustation.  We started a little later than anticipated because a few other people had registered for the tasting, but then failed to show up.  So I ended up having a private tasting of 5 wines.  Given that you may possibly have read a commentary on a tasting of 5 Alsatian wines somewhere recently (I know it's a pretty popular topic these days), I'll try not to repeat myself.  The wines were:

  • 2008 Pinot blanc: A light, everyday wine, with floral and apricot notes, good for cooking - very pleasant.
  • 2008 Riesling: A good pairing with seafood (fresh or smoked), in Alsace this is also the standard pairing for choucroute. Apparently we always speak of "minerality" (think pebbles) when we taste Alsatian Riesling - and having tried it with this in mind, I would concur.  Still my favorite Alsatian wine.
  • 2008 Muscat: Apparently, when describing the nose of a Muscat, there are no good descriptors, "it just smells like itself."  So we say it smells like Muscat.  There are also some citrus notes, but it's hard to name flavors in this smooth, slightly sweet wine
  • 2005 Pinot Gris: I was told this was a special batch of wine produced occasionally (when the conditions are favorable) to match a special 1986 vintage prepared for the citizens of New York in honor of Bartholdi, the Colmar native who designed the statue of liberty.  This particular wine is sweeter than your standard Pinot Gris, and the sweetness makes the wine almost seem fortified.  With notes of dried fruits and mushrooms, this would pair well with foie gras, or work well as an apératif.
  • 2008 Gewurtztraminer: The sweetest and heaviest of the wines, this is a complex wine with notes of peaches and wood.  The sweetness and complexity of flavor makes this a good pairing dishes as diverse as red fruit tarts, chocolates, or even curries.

This tasting was great because I learned a lot about Alsatian wines in general.  For example, when stocking your wine cellar, you should know that 2008 was a good year and 2005 was an excellent year.  But you should stay away from 2010s, once they hit the shelves - all this cold and wet weather, which started a couple of weeks before I arrived, is apparently unheard of in August and probably had deleterious effects on the grapes, which do better with the typical hot and sunny summer Alsatian sun.  In autumn the temperatures lower more quickly here than in other regions of France, which helps to produce excellent white wines but is a disadvantage for producing reds - in Bourgogne and Bordeaux, the summer is generally milder and the warmth lingers later in the fall.  Most Alsatian wines are drunk young, but a good wine can be aged 7-10 years and will continue to develop flavor.

It was a little past 6:00 when the dégustation ended, and my reservation for dinner was for 7:00 when the restaurant opened.  The half-hour that followed was probably my most uncomfortable in all of my travels, and I wandered frantically through the streets searching for a bathroom, which was beyond necessary after tasting the wines.  I even found a public pay toilet at one point, but I didn't have exact change and it wouldn't allow me to overpay.  So lame!

Dinner at the Maison des Têtes was very different from the winstubs I had chosen in Strasbourg: rather than being comfortable and homey, this had a distinctly Nice Restaurant feel - servers wearing black blazers, rushing around and speaking to each other in hushed tones.  The decoration was much more bourgeois, with white linens and fancy glass carafes d'eau (water pitchers) in place of the red-checked tablecloths and grey-and-blue pottery.  Instead of having a basket of cut bread, the servers handed you each roll individually with a pair of silver tongs.  The servers were also just a little pushier about asking me if I'd like an apératif (a before-dinner drink) or some eau minérale (mineral water) than in other restaurants I visited.


I chose the menu Colmar, a three-course prix fixe (fixed price) menu, as well as a glass of Riesling.  The meal started with an amuse bouche:


The amuse bouche, a one-bite starter, was comprised of lightly smoked salmon wrapped around... some kind of mixture of herbs and vegetables.  My notes are limited and I don't remember much about that bite, so it must not have been too memorable.

My entrée was the Terrine de canard et ses petites salades:


A terrine is a dish made of chopped, shredded, or ground meat that is emulsified with fat and pressed into a form, often in a loaf-shape.  Canard means duck, so this is a terrine of diced duck meat, with a liver pâté in the middle and a white outer coating, not unlike a dumpling wrapper.  The terrine was served as a slice of a larger loaf.  The chewy, smokiness of the diced duck paired nicely with the smooth, creamy liver center.  The terrine was also served with five "small salads," each based on a different vegetable: beets, arugula, tomatoes, fennel, and a white vegetable I couldn't place, similar to a mild radish.  Each salad was relatively simple, but put all together they provided a great depth and complexity to the dish.

For my plat, of course I opted for the choucroute garnie:


Hello, gorgeous.  When you order choucroute garnie, you're getting not only the fermented cabbage, but also at least 5 varieties of meats (here there were three types of sausages, ham, and a thick slab of bacon), and sometimes a potato or two - that's the "garnish."  The dish has cooked for a long time - long enough to let all those flavors mingle and meld together.  The sourness of the choucroute has left its mark on the meats, and the mellow round meaty flavors have added depth to the cabbage.  The pleasant acidity keeps the dish from becoming too heavy, even with all those cuts of meat piled on.  The dish was brought out in a cast iron pot and served at the table; there was more cabbage and meat still in the pot, though I couldn't finish what was on this plate!  It was a delicious dish, though not something I could eat every day.

When they finally took my order for dessert (I would say 40 minutes after I finished my choucroute - ridiculous!), I chose the Vacherin glacé:


This decadent dessert was a sandwich of two meringues surrounding two types of ice cream, vanilla and raspberry, and then all topped with some crème Chantilly, pistachios, and spiked grapes.  The meringues were light with a little crunch, and the raspberry ice cream was particularly tart and nice.  The dessert was also served with three tiny petit-fours: a macaron, a small layered pastry, and a curved almond cookie.

It was a nice meal, but not spectacular.  I have to say I really prefer the homier, less pretentious restaurants I visited more often to this more formal style.

After finishing dinner, I stopped briefly in a cybercafe to check email and train schedules for the next day, and then headed back to the hostel to pack and get ready to leave the next day.

Coming soon: Besançon, home of the inestimable Elise... and the most important group of males on earth.

A bientôt,