Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tours I

1 September

We took the TGV (France's high speed train system) to Saint-Pierre-des-Corps, and then had a quick, 5-minute ride into Tours.  Unlike at the beginning of my trip, when being tossed into a new, unfamiliar city every few days was overwhelming and bewildering, now it was commonplace to not know where I was, but get my bearings and figure it out.  We found our hotel, and spent a little time studying maps and guidebooks, and then it was time, of course, to figure out where we'd be having dinner.

Given that the Tours is in the heart of the Loire valley, which is considered to be the "heart" of France and the "birthplace of French cuisine," I wondered if the menus would be as generic and uninspiring as those of Bordeaux.  But I need not have worried, Touraine cuisine is as unique as that of any other région, with rillettes and rillons and freshwater fish aplenty.  The dinner choice was easy once I found this window:

This restaurant was lauded not only by the many restaurant rating guides (note, in particular, the Petit Futé 2011 sticker in the middle - clearly, the excellence continues), but also by locals as the spot for authentic local food.  I was excited to have found an excellent spot for dinner, and we headed about to wander until it opened at 7:00.

Tours is a beautiful city on the Loire river, filled with unusual juxtapositions of old and new architectural styles.

The Loire cuts through the center of France, dividing North from South as it wends its way through the countryside.  Consequently, it was a major German target during the second world war - taking out the bridges on the Loire effectively cut off transportation between the two halves of the country.  As much as 65% of Tours was destroyed in bombing raids during the war, and today some of the "ancient" bricked and half-timbered style has clearly been rebuilt in the last half a century.

Luckily, the outstanding Gothic Cathédrale St. Gatien seems to have escaped most major damage, and is as stunning and awe-inspiring today as ever with its heavy, ornate facade and light, airy interior.

When we headed back to the restaurant a few minutes past 7:00, they weren't open yet, which was strange, so we kept circling about until they were finally seating people around 7:30 or so.  We should have taken the hint and chosen a different restaurant for the evening.  The restaurant was completely full by 8:00 - quite early, in my experience - so clearly others were just as enthusiastic about eating here as we were.

After some serious debate, I opted for a simple meal, starting with a crisp, floral glass of Touraine blanc and a plat de charcuterie:

Note the garnish of sesame seeds...
A plat de charcuterie, as you may recall, is a plate of cold meats, often served with cornichons (small pickles) and mustard.  Starting in the upper left corner and moving clockwise, this plate included saucisse d'ail (a garlic sausage), rillons (essentially leftovers from making bacon, fried until hot and crispy and, hopefully, irresistable), rillettes (shredded pork that's been cooked and then jarred for preservation - it's better than that description sounds!), some pickled cabbage, a cornichon, and a few slices of boudin noir (I hope you haven't forgotten that that's blood sausage) with a couple bits of apple.

The meats were all fine, but nothing was particularly special.  They all would have been better hot.  The boudin was good but not so magical as in Bordeaux.  The saucisse d'ail was a little smoky and a little garlic-y and simple and pleasant.  The rillons had a nice mellow flavor that emphasized pork in its best possible form, but they would have been better crisp and freshly fried.  The rillettes had an incredibly smooth texture, just a little salty and a little sweet, with a little pepper and a lot of pork.

Mom had had a salade avec Sainte-Maure rotie, miel, et pommes:

And more sesame seeds...
Sainte-maure-de-touraine is a goat's milk cheese that is ubiquitous in Tours with a gray, moldy rind, a slightly gritty texture and a tangy, decidedly goaty flavor.  It paired well with the apple and honey, but less well with the heavy hand the chef used with the salt and pepper shakers.

I finished my meal with a salade "simple":

Seriously, what is it about sesame seeds???
The salad was comprised of a tall pile of lettuce surrounded by mounds of shredded carrots and red and white cabbage, and topped with a mess of fresh herbs and literal gobs of salt and pepper.  The seasoning was completely out of line - not at all mixed in, just dumped on top of a few select leaves for some seriously salty bites.  Quite a disappointment.  On the one hand, I did order just a salad instead of something particularly exciting, but on the other hand, I did have some outstanding salads in other restaurants on this trip.

Unimpressed with the meal as we were, and offended that it hadn't lived up to my expectations given the window stickers' promise, we left disillusioned and without dessert.  Back at the hotel, I fell asleep almost at once, exhausted.

Coming soon: the best brioche perdu (that's "French toast" in the ever-unromantic English) ever to cross my lips, and the considerable whimpering it inspired.

A bientôt,

Friday, February 25, 2011

La Rochelle III

31 August

After a few quiet hours in the hotel, we were ready to head out to the beach to watch the sunset - after picking up a pair of pink felt slippers for Mom, and a dinner of Mamie Nova cérises griottes yogurt (outstanding stuff), rhubarb-apple sauce (also outstanding), and a baguette (unfortunately, mediocre) for both of us.  We ate at a bench near the beach, then took off our shoes to walk on the fine-grained, super-soft sand and stick our toes in the ocean.  It was still quite light when we got there, but we were patient and watched the sun dip below the horizon for my first sunset over the Atlantic.

Shades of aqua quietly gave way to baby blues and salmons over the hundreds of masts in the marina.

The beach was fairly empty, and we appreciated the peace and quiet after a hustling, bustling morning.  After the sun had gone down, we started heading back into town, admiring the effect of the soft gloaming light over the city.

On the way back, we passed Ernest le Glacier, an artisanal ice cream shop that puts Baskin-Robbins' 31 flavors to shame with over ninety flavors including spéculoos (Belgian gingersnaps), carotte-gingembre (carrot-ginger), and coquelicot (poppy).  I opted for two boules: cara-sel (an abbreviation of caramel-fleur de sel, or sea salt caramel) and gianduja (hazelnut-chocolate).

Oh là là.  The gianduja had big, bold chocolate and hazelnut flavor - an ideal frozen nutella, super delicious and addictive.  But it was the cara-sel that stole the show.  The salt really piqued the sides of the tongue, while the deep, dark, sugary caramel coated the rest - magnifique.

I savored my ice cream as we walked along the pier back to the hotel, soaking in the cerulean sky and harbor as pale yellow reflections shimmied across the water.

1 September

Hello September - where did you come from???

The next morning started just as brilliantly as the evening before had ended, with a sunrise from our hotel window.

We had a few hours before our train to Tours, and we wanted to get to the market again.  I bought myself a bag of fleur de sel from Ile de Ré as a souvenir, and we got a yellow pepper and a baguette for snacking on train.

We didn't buy any oysters, but had we wanted to, there were many, many choices.

It may be September now, but summer's bounty was still in full force.

And just when we thought we were done, I found the gâches vendéennes:

Hello, beautifuls.  A gâche vendéenne is a viennoiserie (essentially, a sweet bread-like pastry, as opposed to pâtisserie, standard pastry that is not bread-like) similar to a brioche, but hailing from the Vendée département, just north of La Rochelle.  I chose a mini gâche vendéenne aux pommes:

It was a small ball of dough topped with a golden egg wash.  The dough was sweet with a fluffy crumb, and there were a few pockets of apple-cinnamon compote dotted throughout.  It was nice, but nothing particularly special.

Back at the hotel, we finished packing and left for the train station around noon to head to Tours for the penultimate leg of our journey.

Coming soon: Our first evening in Tours, featuring (unfortunately) perhaps the most disappointing meal I had during my trip.

A bientôt,

Monday, February 14, 2011

La Rochelle II

31 August

We woke up early to head out to the market before meeting up with Chantal.  The morning air was refreshingly chilly, and the streets were fairly empty, at least until we got to the market.

Outdoors there was a nice selection of local fruits and vegetables - check out the provenance of these pommes de terre:

Inside, there were boucheries and poissoneries and fromageries to tempt any palate:

We bought a few carrots and nectarines, then hurried back to the hotel to drop off our produce before Chantal arrived.

She had a big day planned - she wanted to show us all around her beautiful city, giving us an insider's perspective we'd never have just wandering ignorantly about on our own.  She lead us by leafy terraces and through shady courtyards, into the Mairie (city hall) to show us the Salle des Mariages (the room where couples sign marriage licenses) and into a 500-year-old house in the midst of a renovation to become a new block of apartments.

Interior courtyard at La Mairie
If anyone, like the surprised work crew at the construction site, questioned our presence, she gestured to us and explained with great authority, "ce sont des Americaines" ("these are Americans"), and that settled it.  All the while, she regaled us with local tales, like the one about a merchant who nearly lost everything in an ill-fated voyage but then came out on top again and donated all his wealth to found a hospital, or about the religious wars in which La Rochelle was the epicenter of Protestant-Catholic tensions, giving new significance to the immense defensive towers standing watch over the harbor.

Chantal cleared up some mysteries for us, elucidating the significance of the ubiquitous ânes-en-culottes, who wear their silly pajama pants to protect them from sharp salt and stinging insects in the salt marshes.  She explained that the arcades covering the sidewalks on so many streets are remnants of the original passages, protecting merchants from the elements as they sold their wares - the wider the arcade, the richer the merchant.

She even knew which shops to duck into to take advantage of the bathrooms - indispensable information to have when traveling to a new city indeed.

The holy water font at the Paroisse du Christ Saveur - that's a real shell, and probably 2' in diameter!
Eventually, as the sun passed its zenith and shops began to close for their lunch breaks, we decided it was time to find something to nibble on.  Chantal seemed unimpressed that we had eaten at André the night before, and suggested that our hotel had a "very good" restaurant.  I would never choose the hotel restaurant, but surely locals know best, non?

I ordered the Noix St.-Jaques Nantaise (Nantes-style scallops), but I don't think that's what I got...

And now I'm afraid I have a confession to make.  I, who would eat pig's feet and a cheese called "silk worker's brains;" I, who would eat tripe twice in the same meal; I, who would eat marinated raw herring topped with raw chopped onion; I, who I would generally consider to be an adventurous eater, cower in fear and revulsion at the thought of shrimp.  I'm not proud of it.  But when Chantal and I both ordered scallop dishes, and they gave my shrimp-free dish to Chantal and her shrimp-smothered dish to me, I had a moment of terror not unlike the moment my first and only escargots were served.  Here we are, with company, in a nice restaurant, and I am served something I simply cannot abide.  It was horrible.  What's a girl to do?

Well naturally, I sucked it up and ate the damn shrimp (with help from my mom - thanks, Mom!).  And for shrimp, they're probably among the best I've had - though that's not saying much, since I avoid them whenever possible.  The scallops, light and fluffy and sweet and lovely, were placed in little puff pastry sandwiches, which were appropriately airy and crisp.  The dish also came with a small green salad on the side.  It was pretty (except, of course, for those hateful shrimp scattered all about), but unfortunately I think it was prettier than it was tasty, even if I didn't have an irrational shrimp aversion.

Chantal seems to have quite the sweet tooth, and more or less insisted upon dessert.  I went for the variation à la fraise:

It came with five plays on strawberries: an ice cream, a crème brulée, a mousse, a strawberry-and-cream topped wafer, and a small bowl of strawberries soaking up some kind of liqueur.  It wasn't bad, but nothing was particularly memorable.  Chantal's dessert had little sesame barquettes with cream and fruit.  Again, it was all pretty, but it didn't make my taste buds sing the way so many other meals had.

I mean seriously, what's with all the sesame??
After lunch, Chantal had an appointment to get a massage, and we went up to the room for a brief sieste.  Chantal had offered to drive us to some other local attraction a little out of town that afternoon, like Ile de Ré, but after several hours of intense sightseeing and making conversation in French with a very newly formed acquaintance, a little r&r seemed a safer bet for the afternoon.

Coming soon: watching the sun set over the Atlantic - that sounds so backwards.

A bientôt,

Friday, February 11, 2011

La Rochelle I

30 August

After a light breakfast and completely repacking my new luggage, we checked out of our hotel around 10:30 am and took a cab to the train station.  On the way, our gregarious cabby chatted with us about my travels and his favorite vacation spots in France.  He recommended Mont St. Michel, which I have no doubt is spectacular... but also another tourist central.  And I must say, I'd rather walk around the markets and see a little of la vie quotidienne than immerse myself in a group of foreign tourists.

On the train, we were seated facing a woman who struck up a conversation with us about my mom's habit of taking pictures out of the train window.  Within the two hour ride, Chantal, a La Rochelle native, offered to give us a tour around her city.  My this-is-a-stranger-and-that-means-they-are-Bad guard was up a bit, but how could we refuse an insider's view of the city?  We parted at the train station as new BFFs and agreed to meet at 9:30 the next morning.

After setting down our bags in the hotel, we set out to see the city a bit.  La Rochelle, the second largest fishing hub on the French Atlantic coast, has a long history as a major port city.  The skyline is dominated by three defensive towers, standing watch over the Vieux Port a reminder of days of sieges and religious wars in a town that today is host to more yachts than frigates.

After stopping to pick up some yogurt at the Monoprix, I spent an hour or so scouting restaurants.  Appropriately, La Rochelle is all about seafood, seafood, seafood.  Ultimately, I didn't see anywhere that looked better than the well-recommended André.  A La Rochelle institution, this sprawling restaurant takes up almost an entire city block.  We entered at what seemed to be the front door, and were lead through one empty dining room into another, and into another again, and finally into an enormous room with a few diners already seated.  After weeks of eating in restaurants that could seat maybe 35 at most, it was quite a change!

André is known for huge seafood platters featuring a dozen varieties of shellfish.  They also offered about eight different kinds of oysters on the half shell in addition to the wide variety of fish you might expect.  Not feeling too adventurous, I opted for a filet de daurade grillé:

The daurade, or dorado in English (or, more commonly, mahi-mahi in American English) was served on a lemony cream-based sauce with a peppery eggplant mash on the side.  The fish was cooked perfectly, very tender and just a little crisp on the edges.  The lemon sauce was a perfect accompaniment.  Perhaps the best fish I've ever eaten - delicious.

My mom ordered a simple plate of grilled vegetables:

The vegetables had been placed under the broiler with some shredded parmigiano-reggiano.  Simple but tasty.

Having ordered more rationally than in the past, we were able to order dessert and enjoy it too.  I selected the entremet pommes, caramel à la fleur de sel Ile de Ré:

Ile de Ré is an island just off the coast of La Rochelle that is home to a natural saltern still in production today.  Their hand-harvested sea salt, known as the poetic "fleur de sel" (salt flower), is used all over the city with caramel to create incredible desserts.  This one had a ton of components: from the top, a salted caramel sauce drizzled over a thick, creamy caramel custard on top of a vanilla crème pâtissière over a layer of caramelized green apples sitting on a biscuit, all over a drizzle of dark chocolate with some green apple mousse dots.  There were a lot of flavors to fit into one complex bite, but the almost burnt, sugary caramel balanced perfectly with the salty bite and the bright, tart apple to create something superb.

And of course, after dessert, I indulged in a déca:

André is conveniently located on the Vieux Port, and after dinner we walked out of the restaurant to find the sky painted colors in the cowboy cliché*.

* thank you, John Mayer.

Coming soon: our insider's tour of the white city

A bientôt,

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bordeaux IV

29 August

Lazy Sunday morning.  I had been thinking about trying to visit St. Emilion and see some vineyards (and, you know, maybe taste another wine or two...), but I realized that morning that since I had left for Europe exactly one month earlier, I hadn't gone two days in a row without getting on a train.  Any time I stayed somewhere for three nights, one of the days I would head a different nearby city for the day to take full advantage of the region.  We had our tickets booked to head up to La Rochelle for the following day, and the idea of making our way across the city to the train station and chugging our way out to wine country for a few hours sounded like too much.  Two-thirds of the way through my trip, and I was tired.  So we ate yogurt and fruit in the hotel, and booked our hotels for Tours and Paris, and finally headed out to find some bread around 11:30.

Unlike in the US, where we're offended by shops that aren't open 24/7, most French businesses are closed at least one day a week, often two.  Even the Louvre is closed one day a week (Tuesday, if you were wondering.)  One of the marks of a good restaurant that I would look for was that it's closed at least one day a week - it shows that the restaurant cares both about the quality of life of its employees, and, by taking care of them, it cares about the quality of its food.  Compared to the US, there's just such a different idea of what is important in life, and the French are willing to sacrifice a little convenience to guarantee time away from the metro-boulot-dodo doldrums.  Most boutiques, pharmacies, even groceries are closed on Sundays - and, in retrospect, had we gone to St. Emilion, I bet most of the wineries and shops there would have been closed, too.  For us, this meant that the normally full-to-bursting, pedestrian-only rue Sainte-Catherine, just around the corner from our hotel, was startlingly empty.  And quiet.

Unfortunately, it also meant that our friendly neighborhood Paul, where we had been getting at least two flûtes a day since we arrived, was closed.  How inconvenient!  So we had to wander a little further afield.

In doing so, we passed the beautiful, macaron-replete windows of pâtisserie Maison Larnicol, so I had to stop in.  Turns out this is the Southernmost outlet of a Breton chain, though I didn't know that at the time.  Having definitively decided only that morning while booking hotels that we would not be stopping in Bretagne (Brittany in English, the remote, Northwestern-most région of France) as I had hoped, when I saw the kouignettes I had to have one.

Kouign-amann is the pastry of choice in Bretagne (that is, when taking a break from crêpes, of course), and a kouignette is a smaller version of the standard.  Bretagne, like the Pays Basque or Alsace, is another region with decidedly foreign imprints on the language and culture.  In Bretagne (called Breizh in the native Breton tongue), Celtic influences from invasions that took place a millennium ago are still very much present, noticeable in names like the decidedly un-French sounding kouign-amann, which derives from the Breton words for cake (kouign) and butter (amann).  Fittingly, a kouign-amann is a flaky round cake made with a dough similar to bread dough but with lots of butter, and then sugar is sprinkled between layers.  Maison Larnicol offered a variety of flavors, but I chose nature - plain.  The vendeuse, or shopkeeper, told me it would be best heated up in my oven before eating.  I'm sure it would be, but having no oven in my hotel room (again with the inconvenience!), I had to eat it at room temperature.  How I suffered on this trip.  It was a little chewy, and tasted of honey and butter.  What a delight it would be all hot and crisp, fresh from the oven!

After scarfing down the kouignette, we wandered through the golden triangle at the heart of Bordeaux until we stumbled upon an open Paul (oh joy!), where we purchased bread so fresh from the oven it was too hot to handle (oh rapture!!).  We walked back to the Monument des Girondins to sit on a shady bench and eat our bread. Miam!!

It was a beautiful, perfect day - the kind of day I wish I could put in a bottle and keep with me forever, just to keep the blues at bay.  A few fluffy clouds broke up the monotony of a brilliant cerulean sky.  The ground was just starting to accumulate fallen leaves, marking autumn's imminence and spiking the air with just a hint of that intoxicating crisp fall aroma.  The Sunday emptiness meant the city was quiet, save for the breeze shuffling the tree branches above and the faint conversation of the classic auto show on the Esplanade des Quinconces.  How utterly tranquil to sit and nosh on our hot bread.  Life doesn't get much better.

Once sufficiently sated, we wended our way down to the river and inevitably ended up at the miroir.

It was midday, and not nearly so crowded as the day before.  There were a few kids, though, and one notable young British boy, after being warned by his cruel father that they would be leaving soon, protested "But I want to stay here!" as he dashed and splashed away across the shallow depths.  Thank you, little British boy, you made my day.

And while I, too, would be happy to stay here, we decided to do a little more sight seeing.  We wanted to check out the Musée des Beaux Arts, but on the way we stopped briefly into the Cathédral Saint André.

The clearly visible bricks in the vaulted ceiling gave the cathedral a wieghtiness that belied light, airiness of its construction - or perhaps it merely emphasized what a remarkable feat of engineering the construction was.  (And is.) 

The museum was very close to the cathedral.  It was a small collection - maybe 5 or 6 rooms total - but a very good one.  Highlights included three Titians (including the Rape of Lucrece!), and a fabulous painting by Jean-Eugène Buland, which was undeservedly hidden away in a corner.  But the most fun pieces were in the courtyard just outside the museum - more of the city's cows:

And my favorite:

Note the small red plaque on the left on the barrel.

Vacchus, the beautiful wine (/sounds like bovine - ha)
Here is a cow who knows how to take care of herself.
Before going out for the evening, there's nothing like a good bath.  Soak in a little wine, it's good for the complexion!  All those seeds and tannins tone up the teats.  Mmmmmmmmmm I'm going to make all my friends envious; they'll ask my for my beauty secrets.
I'll be quiet now and take advantage of my rejuvenating treatment, 
made in excellent vintages.

Amen, sister.

By now it was late afternoon, and we were feeling peckish, so we stopped in a café/salon de thé called Karl for the least regionally-appropriate meal I'd had in weeks.  How deliciously illicit it felt to break my (self-imposed) rules with an assiette de soleil:

Hello, sunshine - this platter came with fromage blanc, a small pain aux raisins, some tomates confites, grape leaves stuffed with an acidic marinated rice mixture, and a small bowl of pesto.  What a lovely change of pace!  In place of wine, I had a lovely glass of jus d'abricot - apricot juice - that was sweet and refreshing and came with an ice cube.  Probably the only one in all of France.

For dessert, I noticed the crumble aux pommes et fruits rouges on the specials board, and, with fond memories of A Priori Thé, ordered one:

It was cooked and served in a cute wooden barquette and came with a pitcher of sinfully vanilla-y cream.  It would have been better with more tart red fruits and apple and a little less crumble topping, but it wasn't half bad.

Karl just happened to also be a hop, a skip, and a jump away from the miroir d'eau, so we stopped by one last time.  It was much busier than it had been earlier, and we appreciated watching the children for a short while.

Bordeaux is a beautiful town, I can't wait to go back and get to see more of both the city and the nearby vineyards.  Three days was not enough - but time was running out and there was still so much I had not seen and tasted and experienced!

Coming soon: La Rochelle, land of ânes-en-culottes.

A bientôt,