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,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

Another excellent post. :-)

Your pics of the inside market, the prison hallway, and the proto-passages all much better than mine......