Thursday, December 30, 2010

Carcassonne I

25 August

From Bayonne, we had took a train to Toulouse, and then changed trains to arrive in Carcassonne in the heart of the Languedoc région.  The second train was not air conditioned, and the hour-long ride through the sunny South of France was uncomfortably hot - not the best of my train rides.  It was hot when we arrived in Carcassonne, too, but luckily it was a short, mostly shady walk from the train station to the hotel.  Sadly, the hotel did not have an elevator, but happily it had wifi and was climate controlled, and we took advantage of the cool for a while before deciding it was time for dinner.

Carcassonne is one of the top tourist destinations in France, attracting visitors with its well-preserved (just as Viollet-le-Duc) medieval walled city on a hill, called la Cité (literally, the city).  I'll have more on the history of la Cité in my next post, but for now I'll just say that while la Cité has about 200 residents, most of Carcassonne's inhabitants live in the Bastide Saint Louis, the neatly arranged (really, I've never seen such straight, precise roads in a town this old!) town at the bottom of the hill.  Our hotel was in la Bastide.

A little past 7:00, we headed out to find some dinner.  The sun was still blazing, but the temperature had cooled down from scorching to quite warm.  I had chosen l'Ecurie, a former horse stable turned restaurant.  But before we could dine, we had to find the restaurant.  Despite the straight roads in la Bastide, I had a terrible time finding my way in Carcassonne.  It didn't help that the streets were completely deserted.  Even though it was still perfectly light out, la Bastide felt a little eerie - like you didn't know who was waiting around the next corner to pounce on you.  I haven't felt that way often in France - even the streets of Paris at night always seemed fine to me - but in Carcassonne, the dry, dusty, hot air just didn't seem entirely welcoming.

Finally we did find the restaurant, which included a large open terrace where we could watch the sun go down as we ate.  I started with a tatin de tomates:


A tatin is a pie that is baked under a pie crust, then flipped upside down for serving so that the crust is underneath, the way a traditional French tarte would be.  This tatin was topped with caramelized tomatoes, with just a hint of rosemary.  The caramel brought out the sweetness of the fruit as a counterpoint to the acidity of the tomatoes, while the rosemary added a little earthiness.  The crust was perfectly crisp around the edges, though a little soft in the middle.  It also came with a small, overdressed green salad.

For my main course, we are in Languedoc, so of course I had to go with the cassoulet:


This is down-home comfort food at its most down-homey and comforting.  Cassoulet is a casserole of white beans and meat, usually made with duck confit, pork, and mutton and cooked with goose fat, onion, and herbs.  My small casserole was brought out still bubbling, and slightly crispy on top.  The rich flavor of the duck had really spread throughout the dish - there was a lot of flavor that had clearly taken a long time to develop.  The meat fell apart on my fork and practically melted on my tongue next to the beans.  It's a beautiful, deep, rich dish that would have been perfect if it were November instead of August - definitely the wrong weather to fully appreciate this dish.  Oh what sacrifices I made!

To go with my cassoulet, I had a glass of Minervois rouge, a Languedoc-Rousillon AOC wine.  It's a blend of Syrah and Grenache, and had a very deep red color.  This is not a wine for the faint of heart; it's full bodied, with blueberries in the nose and a mild astringency in the mouth.  The flavor really builds in the finish, although I must confess it mostly just tasted like red wine to me.  It was a little strong for my taste, but its boldness did match up to the heaviness of the cassoulet well.

Now, I can't talk about wine in Carcassonne without mentioning the Languedoc accent; it's just too funny.  It's kind of like they chew the n's more - vin becomes ving, pain becomes paing.  I almost didn't understand the server when he asked me if I wanted some ving to go with my meal.  For those of you who know what a classic Loire French accent sounds like, here's an example of the Languedoc accent.  It makes me giggle.  Okay, end of digression, I'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming now.

For dessert, I ordered a soupe aux fraises:


While this was called strawberry soup, and it looks like strawberry soup, the overpowering flavor was mint. There were mint leaves in the soup, and the green drizzled on to the whipped cream on top was a mint syrup.  The strawberry flavor only really came through in the finish.  After such a hot meal, it was wonderful to cool down again with this refreshing soup.

After dinner, we walked to the Pont Vieux (old bridge) to have a look at la Cité at night.  We had our look for about 2 seconds, then turned around to rush home with a big group of tourists passing by us so we wouldn't be alone in the long, lonely, dark streets.  It definitely felt a little creepy and opressing after dark, and we were glad to get back to our hotel and shower and relax in our cool room.

Coming soon: The medieval walled city, home of Best Western and noisy toy swords and too many tourists.

A bientôt,

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bayonne III

25 August

Our final morning in Bayonne.  We'll take a moment to appreciate the Adour in the early morning light:


We got so spoiled with that view.  What a perfect start to the day!

We had tickets for a train to Carcassonne later in the day, but first we had a few errands to run around town.  We had been in town three days now and had yet to purchase any chocolate or any ham - a serious oversight requiring an immediate correction.  I've mentioned the significance of chocolate in Bayonne a few times now, but I haven't really explained it.  Bayonne was actually the first city in France to start producing chocolate, way back in the 16th century when Jewish immigrants settled there and set up shop after being expelled from Portugal - but not before learning about the newly-imported New World cacao bean.  Bayonne maintains its reputation as a center of excellent chocolate to this day.

Our first stop was Rue du Port Neuf - literally, it translates as Street of the New Door, but in practice it translates as Chocolate Street.  This pedestrian-only street is home to both Daranatz and Cazenave, the two most famous chocolate shops in Bayonne.  Cazenave is particularly noted for its hot chocolate - so of course we had to stop in and sample some.  I ordered the chocolat mousseux:

The real breakfast of champions
Mousseux translates as "frothy," and that's exactly how this chocolate is.  It's whipped by hand, and the froth piles way above the edge of the cup.  The froth is light and airy, but with some real chocolate oomph to back it up.  But the real star of the show here was the liquid gold beneath the froth - the molten chocolate goodness itself, deep and a little bitter and, as I wrote in my notes, "complete." The hot chocolate I had had a few days before was missing something, but this was more full and more complex and just wonderful.  And just in case it wasn't decadent enough, it was served with super thick whipped cream and oversize sugar cubes.  What a perfect start to the day!

After drinking more chocolate than was probably strictly necessary (though, for that matter, how does one define the amount of chocolate that is "strictly necessary?"), we headed next door to Daranatz to pick up some chocolate bars to take with us.  Even just the lèche-vitrines (literally, window-licking - the French colloquialism for window shopping) was a treat here with all of the colorful, beautiful displays:

I'll take one of everything, please.
We picked up a couple of bars chocolat au piment:


Most of the time when I write about the things I ate on this trip, I am relying on the notes I took and my memory.  But not this time.  I have a square of chocolat au piment, a 65% dark chocolate bar with ground piment d'espelette, in my mouth right now.  The chocolate melts slowly, luxuriously on my tongue, and as it does I notice the faint graininess of the ground piment.  The flavor is deep, bold, with hints of coffee and a pleasant warmth, and as I swallow the heat of the pepper hits the back of my throat and stings just a little. Suffice to say, this is pretty glorious stuff.

And speaking of piment d'espelette, I couldn't leave Basque country without picking up a jar of ground piment so that I can make my own cod omelettes, now could I?  We stopped by les Halles to get a jar, as well as a baguette and some fruit.  What a perfect start to the day!

Our last stop was to pick up some of the famous jambon de Bayonne - Bayonne ham.  These hams are made from special pigs on special diets and must be cured with special local salt, aged for seven months or longer. During the aging process, the hams are rubbed with, what else, more piment d'espelette giving the outside an orange-red tint and an extra tang to the flavor.


We ate our ham and bread and produce on the train.  The ham was quite salty, and though I could see the orange piment powder on the edge, I'm not sure I could taste it.  It made an excellent sandwich with baguette and tomato.  Lunch was definitely the best part of the train ride.

Coming soon: Feelin hot hot hot in Carcassonne... literally.

A bientôt,

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Saint-Jean-de-Luz

24 August

On the 24th, my mom and I took a train to Saint-Jean-de-Luz for the day.  This touristy town on the Atlantic coast had been host to a sardine festival a week before on the 14th - I would have loved to see that, but I was otherwise occupied in Gruyères staring down cows and eating fondue that day, so coming on the 24th was the next best thing.  Saint-Jean-de-Luz is just a couple of miles from the Spanish border - had I had another day in the region, I would have loved to make the trip down to Spanish Basque country... but that will have to wait for my next visit to the region.

First order of business when we arrived after our 20-minute train ride was to head to Les Halles and check out the fresh produce.


Piments d'espelette are ubiquitous in Basque country, but usually I saw them hanging to dry or powdered in jars - not still growing!  If it weren't so difficult (read: illegal) to bring plants back to the US, I would have loved to buy these.

Check it out - jambons de Bayonne!:


Bayonne is known for ham and chocolates.  The hams, which are stamped to authenticate their origin, have been rubbed with dried piments during the curing for a little added kick.  You can see the red powder better on the hams below:

Check out the bundles of piments!
After thoroughly whetting our appetites with all of the great products on display at the market (and, of course, after making a few key purchases - strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and a loaf of bread), we needed some lunch.  I chose a small spot called Pil Pil Enea which served traditional Basque fare.

I had thought I would get ham for dinner in Bayonne and fish (specifically, tuna or sardines) in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, but after having excellent fish the night before, I ended up choosing the axoa de boeuf, avec pommes fondantes:


Axoa (pronounced ah-shwah) is a traditional Basque dish of ground beef in a rich sauce flavored with, you guessed it, piment d'espelette, as well as fresh herbs.  This one also had piparra peppers (those long, thin, light yellowish-green peppers) and huge hunks of potato.  This was a simple dish with a slightly spicy flavor from the piments, and a freshness particularly from the parsley.  It seemed to me kind of like the Basque version of a chili-stuffed baked potato.  Super tasty.

My mom ordered a fish soup.


It was eaten like bouillabaisse, with croutons and rouille, and had a deep fishy flavor.

For dessert, I went with the koka:


Koka is Basque flan.  Unlike a slice of flan you might get in paris, these slices had no crust and they were much more delicate - very light and airy.  The flavor and texture were both kind of like a guimauve - a fresh French marshmallow.  Custardy, smooth and yet a little crumbly. Sweet vanilla goodness.

After lunch, we headed to the beach.  But on the way, we stopped in the church where Louis XIV married the Infanta of Spain:


Though the exterior has just a drab stone facade, the interior was spectacularly ornate - fitting for the wedding ceremony of The Sun King.  The wedding took place here due to its position on the border of France and Spain, and the town is very proud of this historical event.

And finally, our raison d'être for Saint-Jean-de-Luz, la plage:



There were lots of families and kids at the beach, so I was surprised to also see a few women sunbathing topless.  I suppose it oughtn't to have been a surprise - after all, this is France.  That evening on TV, there was some talk show with Kanye as a guest star, and they had a quote of him saying all he wanted during his visit to France was "a nice French girl - one he could cruise down the Champs Elysees with" - and next thing you know, a bevy of beautiful, topless women walked into the room for him.  There's just such a different relationship with nudity - kind of like how there's a totally different relationship with alcohol.  On the one hand, we Americans feel so scandalous as we constantly push the envelope with sexuality/vulgarity in advertisements and media... but on the other hand, it feels like we never really abandoned our puritan roots.  But I digress.

Sadly, the ocean was polluted enough here that they weren't letting anyone swim.  Not that I wanted to swim - we only dipped our toes in - but what a pity that it's not safe to swim if one so desires!

By about 4 pm, my mom was getting a little tired and was ready to head back to Bayonne for the evening... but first, I needed to do a little shopping.  The first stop was at a tarte shop we had passed on the way to the beach that sold dozens of varieties of tartes, both savory and sweet.  I bought a slice of the one that most caught my fancy: the "Primeur," with carrot, goat cheese, and cumin:


Sounds a little crazy, right?  But it was pretty tasty stuff.  It was boxed up for me after a couple of additional slices of goat cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and some herbs were added.  The flavor was overwhelmingly cumin, with a little tang from the goat cheese, and a little sweetness from the carrots in the finish.  The carrots had been pureed, so the texture was super smooth.  I'm not sure it's traditional Basque fare, but what a great inspiration for cooking (cumin carrot soup, anyone?)

I stopped in another pâtisserie for a crème Basque mini:

Basque clover at 12:00!
This was an individual-sized cake with a yellow cream filling.  It was a very sweet pastry that tasted something like yellow cake with a simple sweet creamy filling.  Not terribly exciting, but certainly sweet enough to satisfy my sweet tooth.


And in the interest of visiting as many pastry shops as possible, when we passed Maison Adam, I had to step in and sample what is purported to be the original macaron:


Like the macaron I had tasted in Bayonne, this was a simple single wafer that tasted strongly of the almond flour and almond milk used to make it.  It had a chewy texture without being sticky.  It was only mildly sweet, with the almond flavor being the real focus.  A very nice cookie, if rather plain in comparison to its Parisian cousins.

We brought the tarte, desserts, and a loaf of baguette back with us to the hotel in Bayonne for dinner, along with the pain de seigle avec figues we had gotten at the market that morning:


This small, dense loaf of rye bread with figs had a tangy bite from the rye flour and a little sweet from the dried figs.  It was tasty, but super filling - it took us days to work our way through this loaf.

Once back at the hotel, we had a quiet evening of noshing and tv watching and, for me, journal writing.  It was also time to start packing, since we were leaving for Carcassonne the next morning!

Coming soon: our last morning in Bayonne, wherein ham and chocolate success is achieved and all were happy.

A bientôt,

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bayonne II: Cidrerie Ttipia

23 August

A little past 7:00, my mom and I headed out to dinner at the Cidrerie Ttipia for our first big meal together in France.  I had read a number of great reviews for the restaurant, which were backed up by the colorful display of Routard recommendation stickers in the window above the door.


When we got to the restaurant around 7:30, we were told they weren't open until 8:00, so we found a pleasant bench and waited until it was time to eat.  We were already hungry, but I am so, so glad we waited - this was one of the best meals I had.

See the two chalkboards flanking the door?  That's tonight's menu.  I don't mean the specials - I mean the entire menu.  Unlike any other restaurant I visited in France (or, actually, anywhere, for that matter), the Cidrerie (which translates as cider maker or cider house) has one set menu of four items available each night.  You can order the whole menu, or just part of it - but that's all there is on offer for the evening.  So I can't make any recommendations as to what to get, but I can tell you that everything I tasted was excellent!

Once we could finally come in and be seated, I was immediately in love with the place.  The tables are long and the seating is comprised of wooden benches.  We shared our table with a large family.  In the walls, there appear to be large wooden casks.


Now, I'm fairly certain that these appearances are a little deceiving, but the wooden barrels give the pseudo-illusion of being cider casks stuck in the wall.  I say pseudo-illusion because there is indeed cider that pours from the spigots.  The Cidrerie is bringing back the Basque tradition of making hard cider, and along with your meal you are invited to pour yourself cider from these two casks à volonté - as much as you like.  Each cask had a different kind of cider: one was declared to be "plus brut," while the other was "plus fruité" (drier vs. fruitier).


But enough about the decor and the cider - on with the food!  We started with a baguette and an omelette à la morue:


Morue is - wait for it - cod.  This was an omelet made with big hunks of cod, and seasoned with the region's ubiquitous piment d'espelette both in dried form and with small pieces of the peppers.  That's not a combination I ever would have made on my own, but it would have been my loss because this was one of the best things I ate all summer.  The piments added just a little heat in the back of the throat, as well as a fresh sweetness.  The fish was cooked perfectly and added a new texture to the bite.  But the real star were the eggs, which were just perfect.  This was heaven.

We probably should have stopped here... but it was too good not to finish!
After the omelet came the merlu à l'espagnol:

Loving the bold Basque red and green
Hake, known as merlu in French, is a popular fish in Basque country, and this one was done "in the Spanish style," which apparently meant with green pepper, more piments, and caramelized garlic.  The fish was just a little crisp and a little sweet.  The peppers, garlic, and fish made a perfect bite: smoky, sweet, just a hint of acidity, very well rounded.  Almost homey - though this is a far cry from what I grew up eating.  Delicious.

But all these were just appetizers for the gargantuan dish to come - a gorgeous, saignant chuleta:


I'm not sure if this photograph really does it justice, but this steak probably weighed a full kilo - it was enormous.  And, I might add, super delicious.  This was truly a beautiful cut of meat, and it was cooked just enough to get a crisp sear while holding in all the juicy goodness of a rare steak (called saignant in French - literally, bloody) as only the French can do.


I know I ate too much steak, but it was too good to stop!  It was still sizzling when it was served, and it was seasoned simply with a little salt, which really let the perfect beef flavor shine through.  The steak also came with a simply dressed salad, which provided a nice lightness to the heavy, rich beef.

We couldn't come close to finishing our oversized steak, which is a real pity because it was so good.  But once they took it away, we still had another course coming!  We finished with a fromage de brebis et pâte de coing et noix:


The sheep's milk cheese paired very well with the quince and nut spread, which brought a fruity sweetness that was a nice balance for the heavier, richer cheese.  I'm glad the portions were small - I couldn't eat too much more at this point.

What a beautiful meal - every course was so good, but that omelet really stole the show.  If you're ever in Bayonne, I highly recommend the Cidrerie Ttipia!

Coming soon: seaside rendez-vous in Saint-Jean-de-Luz - so 'très charmant,' my dear.  (Queen? anyone?)

A bientôt,

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bayonne I

23 August 

Our first morning in Bayonne was slow, checking email and booking hotels for Bordeaux and La Rochelle.  After three and a half weeks with no computer, it was wonderful to have a laptop with me again!  Luckily we had our great view out the hotel window over the Adour to keep us company as we did our planning:

Check out the crazy currents coming off of the bridge pillars!
Finally around 11 we headed out to explore Bayonne.  It's a beautiful town.  First on the list were an ATM and a post office, but we got a chance to admire the city as we ran our errands:

Rue Port Neuf, AKA Chocolate Street - not to be missed!
Finally it was really time to eat.  We stopped in a Monoprix and a boulangerie to grab some brunch:

Check out the caption in Euskara on the cheese.
Note also the red "four-leaf clover" under the word Basques - very regional!
An unusual baguette, covered in corn meal, along with a stinky sheep's milk cheese, fruit, and what we thought was a sheep yogurt but what was actually "lait empressé" - "compressed milk," whatever that means.  The texture was more crumbly than yogurt, and the flavor was very dairy with just a little sheepiness, but sweetened and with vanilla.  A strange item.

Why all the sheep dairy products?  I'm so glad you asked.  The Basque region is in the Pyrenees, straddling the Spanish border.  Unlike the Swiss Alps, which are home to some of the most famous cows on earth, there aren't so many cattle in the Pyrenees - they tend to favor raising sheep here, so the most famous cheeses of the region tend to be sheep's milk cheeses.  It's pretty common to see wheels at the market labeled "Pur brébis" - pure ewe's milk.

After our brunch, we spent some time exploring.  The Cathedral has a beautiful cloister attached to the side of it:



How many people have walked through those halls in thought in the last several hundred years???

All over France, I found strong regional pride - but maybe more so in Basque country than anywhere else.  Perhaps in part it's related to the fact that the ancestors of today's Basques managed to hold onto their language in the face of invading parties from other parts of Europe - the Basque language (called "Euskara" in the native tongue) is unrelated to any other language on Earth - which is unique amongst Indo-European languages.  Though Bayonne is a part of France today, it has its own flavor and character, very much distinct from the rest of the country - and that distinction is on display all over the city.

Basque colors are red and green.  I suppose that sounds a little strange, like the region is united around a single sports team - but it's so much richer than that.  In the markets, in the shop windows, on the postcards you see bunches of vibrant piments d'espelette (Basque mild hot peppers, that lend their flavor to many of the dishes), hung to dry.  Many of the narrow streets are lined, even blanketed with little red and green flags:



Signs here tend to come in at least four languages: French, Euskara, Spanish, and English.  Though it seems so esoteric, Euskara is a standard language still in use here today.


The streets are lined with homes that seem to pull from the half-timbered architecture I saw in Alsace and Bourgogne, but they have their own distinct, colorful, Southern twist on the theme:


In the culinary world, Bayonne is known for two things: ham and chocolate.  We'll come back to the ham in a couple of days, but after walking for a few hours, we were in need of some chocolate.  We stopped in Lionel Raux, a pâtissière with a "bar au chocolat" - literally, chocolate bar, not like Hershey's bar, but drink-serving bar - where I ordered a chocolat chaud à l'ancien:


I got a big mug of rich, slightly bitter hot chocolate - good, but it was no Angelina, which is still the best hot chocolate on the planet, hands down.

After the chocolate, we stopped in another small pâtisserie to pick up a macaron:


Now I know what you're thinking: "That's a macaron?  What happened to your picture-perfect Pierre Hermé ideal?"  To which I reply, this is a Basque macaron.  There is much contention in France about who invented the first macaron, but Maison Adam in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (on which, more coming soon) throws their hat in the ring with a story about creating the first macaron - a light cookie made from almond flour, egg whites, and sugar - on the occasion of the marriage between King Louis XIV of France and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, in 1660.  This was a simpler cookie than the fancy flavored concoctions popular in Paris today, and this is still the macaron seen most commonly in Basque country today.  This macaron is very true to its almond base with a strong almond flour flavor, just sweet enough.  It's also much chewier than its more fashionable cousin.

We headed to the tourist office to get information on the best way to get to St.-Jean-de-Luz for the next day, and passed the botanical garden on our way.  I'm not used to thinking of palm trees in France, but what do you know, there they are amid the walls and church spires and everything that I expect to be French.


Another important aspect of Basque culture is better known across the border in Spain: bullfighting.  Now not to worry, I didn't go to a bullfight there - but the motifs are all around.


After a day of wandering, I headed back along the rivers to the hotel for a brief repose before dinner.


Coming soon: cod omelet, Spanish style hake, steak, arda gasni - one of the best meals I've ever, ever eaten.

A bientôt,