Monthly Archives: July 2010

Ooh la la!!!

Next time, I'm getting the turquoise ones! And the purple ones...

Oh. My. God.  Omigod.  Oh my god. 

Just had my first macaron from Laduree.  These are amazing, incredible and delicious. 

Firstly the colours are a feast for the eyes alone.  Actually the entire place is – I want to live there.  But the macarons….oh my, the macarons!

The texture is incredible.  I expected it to be crunchier as it is meringue but there’s a reason they leave the cookies for two days after they’re made.  It’s the texture – it’s perfect.  Some crunch but not dry. And the ganache filling – rich, creamy and the perfect foil to the meringue.  Match made in heaven.

And the flavour?  Ooh la la!  Vanilla, raspberry, pistachio, lemon, coconut were my first choices.  They are incredible.  Sweet but not overly.  Flavourful but none of that chemical taste.  This is the real thing.

These are not cookies.  These would scoff in the face of cookies.  These are tiny, delicate, hand-crafted pieces of tasty art.

Apparently, Laduree waits for two days after making these delicious edible jewels before they will sell them (about 12,000 a day from all four of their shops).  The good news – they apparently last for a few days after purchase.  The bad news – I’ll probably eat the ones I’m bringing home on the plane.

Ooh la la….mmmmm…..

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Champagne is not a dot com industry

Champgne vineyards

That’s my favourite quote of the day! Our guide was trying to emphasize that champagne making is a long, slow and arduous process – which it is! I took a tour of Champagne – only five of us – with Trong our guide. It was fabulous!

 Oh I love champagne. And Champagne. And champagne in Champagne!

Grapes

English is Trong’s FOURTH language – he speaks Vietnamese, French, Italian and English. His parents emigrated from Vietnam and he grew up here in Champagne. Btw, he describes his best vacation (and he’s been all over) to be the seven weeks he spent in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta! Trong is very passionate and knowledgeable about champagne making, the Champagne region and the history and future of France in general. He was very interesting and had tons to share.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims

We drove from Paris to Champagne and went to one of the ‘premiere’ villages. There are many,many regulations in Champagne and only a certain number of areas are ‘premiere’. We toured the vineyard and Trong explained that it’s not only the science of champagne making that makes it special (as that can be duplicated – hence sparkling wines) but the area itself. There is a small (5cm) layer of soil and then about 130 metres of chalk. The vines are grown in chalk and the caves are built of chalk. He dug up some for us and it’s so moist I could crumble it with my fingers.

Modern stained glass in the cathedral

Then we went to a small champagne producer. She is unusual as she grows her own grapes, uses only her own juices and produces and packages all her champagne herself. She has about 11 hectares of vineyards in the premiere village. She took us on a tour and explained the process of champagne making. It’s incredibly labour intensive. We then did a tasting of no less than six champagnes. Trong said this is why he feeds us breakfast! Was slightly giddy by the sixth glass! I bought one bottle of my favourite as they are so reasonable.

We totally get jacked in Canada with champagne. Firstly, what they export to North America, they won’t even drink in France. Secondly, we all get suckered by the labels. Cristal has a vineyard literally three feet from the vineyard that the champagne I was drinking was from. They are on the same slope so same quality of grape. The bottle I was drinking was 13 Euros. Yup. Same stuff.

Chagall's stained glass windows

Then we went for lunch in Reims and chatted with the group. Beef carpaccio for a starter, fennel and bass for main and ice soufflé for dessert. The ice soufflé is meringue and cream mixed with fruit and frozen – interesting but not my favourite. Espresso of course to finish!

Then a tour of Reims. In WWI, Reims was decimated. It’s surrounded by hills and the Germans basically surrounded it and bombed the crap out of it. The cathedral was left, although damaged and the foundation of the abbey but only one home remained. That’s it. One. There has been great anti-German sentiment in France but particularly Champagne for a long time. Trong explained that Champagne has not traditionally welcome tourists as they distrusted foreigners as foreigners usually razed their town historically. That’s changing now and they are actively encouraging tourism.

The biggest holds 160 glasses of champagne!

The Reims cathedral is stunning and about the size of Notre Dame. It is the cathedral where all the kings of France were crowned (except Napoleon and we all know what happened to him). The best part is the stained glass. After WWI (some of the original stained glass was taken out by locals and preserved during the war but many windows did not survive), some of the windows were replaced by modern stained glass representing the people strife with having their town annihilated.

Then…. Marc Chagall stained glass. They are magnificent. I will say no more except to say that if you’re in France – they are a must see…the champagne aside!

There are rooms upon rooms like this!

Then it was off to a large champagne producer – Taittenger.  We took the tour of their caves (they have over 30 million bottles of champagne.  I’m sure they won’t miss one or two?!?)  which are built on top of where the abbey used to be.  Their cave is also carved from the underground chalk.  Back up 118 stairs (whew!) and another glass of bubbly….aaah!

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Grocery stores

I noticed as I was at the ubiquitous Monoprix (Franprix and Auchon are about the same except Auchon is MUCH bigger) that there are some interesting differences between French and Canadian grocery stores.  Aside from the obvious stuff, I mean.  For example,  there was one kind of BBQ sauce and four ROWS of mustard.  These people are serious about their mustard.  I guess like Alberta beef eaters are about their BBQ sauce!

They have tons of cold desserts that are individually portioned.  There’s a jillion kinds of yoghurt, mousses, crèmes, custards, puddings, etc.  I mean there is a lot!  Way more variety than we have – but very little in “family” size.  And the yoghurt – there is a lot of yoghurt in Paris.  And Activia has different flavours here than back home.  There’s coconut and mango (actually almost everything comes mango flavoured here – mango is very popular in Paris) and fig, grapefruit, pistachio,  and a bunch of others.  Yummo!

They don’t refrigerate the eggs.  Ever.  I’m sure it’s fine but I still put mine in the fridge when I get home.

The milk – all milk is sold warm.  At first I thought it was all powdered stuff but it’s not.  It’s milk.  I also put it in the fridge as soon as I get home. Update: Apparently the milk is sterilized.  Ew.  There is some milk that’s sold in plastic bottles (thick plastic like bleach bottles) that isn’t sterilized but it’s tough to come by.

There is bread all over the store.  There is the wee boucherie as soon as you get in the store, bread by the wine, bread in the meat section, the fish section, the cheese section.  Then there is the bread section where there is two aisles (the store is not even half as big as a grocery store at home) of breads.  Dried breads, whole wheat breads, American bread (that what they label white bread as) and brioche. Damn brioche is good. 

While there is a plethora of bread, there is almost no salad dressings.  I’m guessing they generally make their own.  There are a jillion kinds of olive oil and vinegars (also very serious business here – actually food is serious business here) but I could only find about five different kinds of salad dressing – one was balsamic vinegar and olive oil, an Italian (creamy), an herb and garlic one (that’s what I got), and two I can’t remember now.

Along with the individual portioned desserts, they have individual portioned everything!  The Boursin cheese I adore comes in mini-packets – about the size of a pat of butter.  Parfait!

Oh and this one got me!  Chips that were cheeseburger and pepperoni pizza flavoured!  Ewww!

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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Monet's House

The Good:

I took the train to Normandy and went to Giverny, where Monet spent the last years of his life and created his beautiful gardens and painted some of my favourite pieces.  I decided to rent a bicycle and bike from the train station to Monet’s home (it was only about 7km’s one way).  What a beautiful bike ride through the town and countryside.  The song “I Am Confident” a la Maria in the Sound of Music went through my head. (Fine, I know that was set in Austria and this is France but close enough!)  The bike was perfect, including its old-fashioned shape, squeaky brakes and adorable basket!

Giverny gardens

Monet’s home is very enchanting.  You aren’t allowed to take photos of the interior of the house.  It’s full of tiny rooms sprouting off on another.  The rooms are painted springs colours – light green with blue trim, blue walls with violet trip, the dining room is a sunny and cheerful yellow and the gorgeous kitchen is all blue and white tiles with copper pots hanging off the wall ( I was drooling!).  The entire house has tons of Japanese prints on the walls – an important part of Monet’s inspiration.

Pathway to house

Monet once said, “I am only good at two things.  Gardening and painting.”

Let me tell you, when the man is good at something, he is GOOD at something!

Sunflower

The gardens are stunning.  Row after row of plants, grouped in aesthetically pleasing colour arrangements – one row of pinks, reds and purples, the next of yellows and oranges.  Tons of arches and beautiful trees, especially those willows I love so much.  The irises weren’t in bloom (too late in the year) but the gladioli were!

The walk down to the water lily pond and Japanese bridge was beautiful and follows a small stream, which widens later.  There were two dories moored on one shore.  The

Water Lily Pond

water lily pond is much bigger than I thought.  The bridges offer great views.  As Monet grew older and developed cataracts, he painted on bigger canvases and less details

Flower - don't know what kind it is but I love it!

(hence the Water Lily paintings) – this would be a great subject – the light reflecting off the water would be enough to give the feeling of it.

I rode back to Vernon and had lunch at a place I highly recommend.  As soon as you’re out of the train station, there’s a small cafe with a few signs, “Here Rent Bicycles”.  It’s called Arrivee du Giverny

Water lily pond throught the willows

Cafe.  I was chatting with the owner when I returned the bike and decided to have lunch.  I’m not a huge mussels fan by any stretch but he recommended them so I decided to have the Moules et Frites – I’m sure it’s illegal to leave France without sampling that here anyways! 

Chickens - there's a small coop in the far back corner

It was delicious!  The best meal I’ve had here in France.  I’m so glad I ordered it.  The mussels smelled incredible and were done to perfection.  The broth was unbelievably tasty and the fries – for once the fries were actually cooked to crispiness!  They were a perfect combination.  The chef delivered my lunch himself and when he saw me taking a picture of it (I’d had one mussel and it was so good, I knew I had to share!) he came over and took one of me (he didn’t ask by the way – just took the camera and clicked!).  The service was fantastic here.  The owner has recently acquired this cafe, so I’m not sure what it was like before but it is now fabulous.  Truly.  If you go to Giverny, give yourself enough time to have the moules frites at the cafe!

Moules frites in Vernon at Arrivee du Giverny Cafe

The Bad

I got lost.  The guy gave me a map but it was very faded and despite all the information I read on the ‘net saying the route was clearly marked…it was not – at least not for a person who is directionally dysfunctional!  I eventually got help from a Japanese man who speaks no English and two words in French (that was interesting – God bless him) and then a couple from Bath found me (really, they found me) and having been to Giverny a few times, they let me follow them.  God bless them too! 

The Ugly

I am an idiot.  I completely buggered up reading the train schedule for my return journey (seriously, it’s very clearly laid out – I’m just an idiot).  So I ended up missing my train by a ONE minute and then had to wait two hours until the next one. 

That was when it started to rain.

Further proof that God is a woman – only a woman has this twisted sort of sense of humour.  I should know! 🙂

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A museum, a church and a monument….

St. Germain des Pres

If you add a priest, a preacher and a rabbi, I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere!

Back to the Latin Quarter today…Jenge – this is for you – it’s called the Latin Quarter because before Napoleon had Latin replaced with modern French at the Sorbonne, Latin was the language used at the university.  So in this area, around the Sorbonne and other universities…you would hear the students all speaking Latin. 

The Pantheon

St. Germain des Pres – a beautiful church, and still functioning as an active parish today.  Some churches are really only of historical or architectural interest now but there are quite a few that are still active parishes.  It amazes me that they have to post signs asking people not to walk around and speak during Mass. 

Really?

Plaques of exam thank-yous from students!

A whole bunch of people (and I’ve attended a few Masses hear – they are always crowded, even on weekdays) gathered together to pray and people think it’s acceptable to walk around, chat and take pictures?  This seems appropriate?  I wonder if it’s the poor image of the Catholic Church in our society or the ignorance of an increasingly secular society.  Perhaps people are just unaware that there is a solemnity to prayer and a sacred to the Mass.

Okay, rant over!

Stained Glass at Musee de Moyen Age

This street has some fantastic shopping too!  The sales in France are for two times a year – 4 to 5 weeks after Christmas and then the same in July.  It’s controlled by the government (I believe that stores can also have sales for up to two weeks throughout the year at their own discretion).  So, now that we’re nearing the end of July, a lot of stores are having their second markdown and there are some good deals to be had! 

Roman baths

I went to the Musee de Moyen Age (I think it’s also called the Musee du Cluny – not sure).  It’s a museum of the Middle Ages, built right into the ruins of the Roman baths.  I enjoyed it!  There was tons of antiquities from the Middle Ages, jewellery, chalices, serving wear, armour, etc as well as artwork, carvings, statues, stained glass and beautiful needlework. 

Armour from the middle ages

The most famous piece for this museum is the Lady and the Unicorn – tapestries in six pieces.  (the meaning of the last is still not agreed upon!)  I’ve seen pictures of it before but had no idea how large it was.  They’ve displayed it in a round room with the five pieces on the back wall (depicting the senses) and the last on the side opposite. 

The Lady and the Unicorn Room

I also headed to the Pantheon and thankfully, it wasn’t too busy.  It was supposed to originally be a church but was finished being built right around the beginning of the Revolution.  Instead it was used to honour the “Great” of the Revolution.  Mirabeau, Voltaire, Rousseau and Marat were buried here but Mirabeau later got the boot because he wasn’t ‘revolutionary’ enough.  Seems harsh!  Mind you, those Revolutionaries weren’t exactly known for their gentile sensibilities.  Cutting someone’s head off is a very upfront way to get your point across!

Foucalt hung this pendulum in the Pantheon in 1851 to prove that the earth rotates

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Cha Ching!

Did you hear that? 

That was the sound of all the cash I’ve dumped in Paris this week!  Ooh la la – la shopping!

Large poster outside the museum

I went to the Musee D’Orsay today and it’s a sin that you can’t take pictures because let me tell you…it’s absolutely stunning in there.  It was orignially supposed to be a train station (Rodin originally designed the Gates of Hell for it’s entrance) but as the steam engine went out…there wasn’t enough room for the new trains.  So it sat empty (a pity for sure) until the French government turned it into the musueum it is today.  Seriously, it is stunning.  The lighting is fantastic, the mix of painting and sculpture is incredible and aside from the fact that it holds the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work in the world (my favourite), the environs alone is a beautiful space.

After a few hours spent touring the place (can I live there please?), I did some shopping in the bookstore there and dumped a ridiculous amount of money on books for my students.  They are awesome!  I reigned it in and didn’t touch the Katie series (Katie and the Impressionists, etc.) because I know I can get them from Amazon at any time.  I decided to have lunch in their sumputous dining room ( wish I could take pictures of the ballroom next door – amazing!) on the third floor.

The Musee D'Orsay

In summer, Parisians drink chilled Rose wine (that’s rose with an accent but still haven’t figured that out and I’m not writing this in Word first, sorry!).  I don’t know who started this or how it started but it’s bloody brillant.  It’s all I drink here.  Even the cheap stuff is really good to my undeveloped palate and I’ve always been happy.  I can almost drink a carafe and not be loaded. 

Almost.

Carafe du vin rose

After my gorgeous risotto and then tart with cafe creme, I realized that I was drunk.  Not really drunk, but certainly buzzed and a bit embarassing for a grown woman at four in the afternoon.  You know how you suddenly now you’ve had too much to drink, but short of turning back time, there’s nothing to be done about it?  So, hoping to keep my dignity intact, I paid the waiter (btw, great service there as well as good food) and left.  But not before the maitre’d ran after me, as I had left my bag of children’s books at my table. 

 Crap. 

On my way out, I realized I had missed the second part of the bookstore.  In I went and ended up spending another boatload of cash on books – but these are for me!  Books on history and art – yum!  At the counter (my french is improving – ever so slightly) I was speaking to the cashier and mentioned I had already bought books today and how heavy they would be on the plane.  She asked to see my reciepts and announced that I definitely qualified to have my tax returned (if you spend a crapload of money at one store, the French government will reimburse your tax for you.  Of course, as par for the course with the French government – there are eighty-seven forms to fill out).

Not too shabby for lunch, eh?

As I was waiting for the ladies to figure it out (they have a new system apparently)  a very handsome and charming gentleman was waiting with me.  He’s from Philedelphia.  He’s actually been to Calgary.  Once.  For a convention.  (He may not have been as handsome and charming as I thought – I was still tipsy). Anyway he speaks even less French than me (read – barely says bonjour) so I explained what was going on.  He thought he was in trouble!  I eventually got the form and all the receipts etc. and made my home with about 100 lbs of books.

Current plans to get all this crap home:

A) put heaviest stuff in carry-on and hope no one at security notices I can’t lift it to get it scanned or in the overhead bin.

2) ship it home in a gigantic box, offering up my first-born child as payment

3) discreetly bake dozens of loaves of bread with a book in each and send them to all my friends and family – one book at a time.   

4) screw it – pay the baggage overage fees and pimp out Margarita to pay for it (we really need to re-negoiate those right of refusal terms!)

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It is a truth universally acknowledged…

Eiffel Tower

That firefighters are hot….and Paris is no exception.

As I went towards the Eiffel Tower today, I was surprised to see someone rappelling off it.  Even more surprised to see a bunch of firefighters gathered underneath.  I’m assuming they were doing exercises of some sort.  Anyways, they took turns for the entire time I was there.  Seeing the firefighters milling about (I don’t know what it is but it’s there!) was awesome…the military men on the other hand…love the beret, the machine gun I could do without.

Firefighters rappelling from Eiffel Tower

La Tour de Eiffel, the Iron Lady, whatever you want to call her….she is impressive.  Have a healthy respect for the ground level and a terrifying fear of glass elevators, I did not go to the top.  There isn’t much point when I would spend the entire time closing my eyes, gasping for breath and quite possibly either chanting (I wanna go down, I wanna go down) or screaming bloody murder (Get me the hell off of here!). And let me tell you, it is really hard to keep a low profile after that.

She's no longer a Lady!

The queues were atrociously long but at least it wasn’t sunny!  I walked to the opposite end of the Parc du Champs and stood on a little knoll to take some shots.  I was trying to be quick as there was an obnoxious man shouting orders to a guy taking a picture of him and his newly affianced girl (some of this is supposition because he was speaking French but with what I think was a German accent) and telling him how the composition of the pictures should be..blah, blah, blah.  So, in my haste, I apparently failed to notice that I was on unlevel ground!  So, even though she looks like the Iron Lady After Too Many Glasses of Rosé – she’s still as upright as ever (it’s that girdle!)

Military academy that Napoleon attended

This the Ecole Militaire where Napoleon went – one of his instructors reportedly said, “he could go far under favourable circumstances”. 

 I hope that guy got tenure.

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