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Archive for the ‘France’ Category

It’s January 2 – a new year and the end to what friends of mine call the “Eating Season”. The past month has been filled with parties and gatherings, chock full of diet-busting treats. It’s a time when food is all around me and my thoughts naturally turn towards the many wonderful things out there to eat.

January is also the start of a long three months of the year: it’s cold and grey and my mood invariably turns sour. Spring seems like an endless time away. The last few years, one of my coping tools has been to plan where I’m going to travel in the upcoming year, to give myself something to look forward to. I’ll also spend time reading over my travel journals and looking at my photos to remind myself of good times with the hope of more to come.

So, of course, what better time of year to try and narrow down my favourites out of everything I’ve eaten on my trips – things I’d seek out to have again if ever and whenever I go back. Many may be disappointed in my choices (you won’t find fermented shark or anything as adventurous on here). In fact, many of these I can find easily here in Toronto – I can find them and but they’re not going to be nearly as good. So, in order of discovery, here we go:

1. Albondigas (Spanish meatballs)

Such a simple thing, the meatball, but oh boy did these rock my socks. After a few days of mostly grilled pork and ham, I ordered these in a tapas place in Olot, Spain, and it was love at first bite. The meat itself was moist and flavourful and swimming in a really tasty sauce. Not being a seafood eater, I wasn’t sold on Spanish food until I tried these.

2. Fresh buffalo mozzarella

I’d never eaten fresh mozzarella before it came as part of a caprese salad I ordered in Trieste, Italy, and my immediate thought was, where have you been all my life? I love cheese like I love my own mother, and this was so indescribably good. In fact, I may have moaned when I first tasted it. The tomatoes weren’t shabby either. This was something I tried finding when I got back to Toronto, but I’ve not found any that tasted as good yet.

3. Pizza margherita

I had a lot of pizza during my time in Italy, but one I had in Florence stands out in particular. I like my pizza simple, and when the ingredients are as good as they are there, you don’t need a ton of toppings. The local ingredients are what make the difference between the pizza I had in Florence and any of the numerous ones I’ve had elsewhere: the tomatoes for the sauce, the cheese, and the fresh basil. I normally view the crust as a cheese-and-sauce delivery platform, but even the crust was a delight. Yum, yum in my tum.

4. Pain au chocolat

My breakfast every morning I was in France consisted of some form of croissant; in fact, I made quite a study of them wherever I went. I find dairy products in general to be superior in Europe compared to home, so naturally any pastry that uses butter so generously in its creation is going to be better there than anything I’ve tasted before. The best I found (so far) was a pain au chocolat from a pastry shop in Reims – so buttery and warm, with a gooey chocolate center. I definitely moaned when I took my first bite (I want to moan thinking about it now).

5. Skyr

Commonly known as Icelandic yogurt, its consistency is more like a cross between yogurt and cream cheese. I only ever ate it sweetened and flavoured with fruit, but it does have that underlying sourness that yogurt has. It is much, much thicker than any yogurt I’ve ever had at home – the kind you can find in tubs in stores is almost spreadable. As rich as this tastes, it’s truly amazing that skyr is low-fat and full of protein, so it’s a pretty guiltless treat compared to everything else on this list.

And on that note, I’m hungry – I wonder if I have any Christmas cookies left?

Happy New Year, happy eats, and especially happy travels!

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So much of my time travelling is spent as an observer, whether with my own eyes or through the view screen on my camera: I pause and I look, but then I move on. So it is a visceral thrill for me whenever I get a chance to touch as well.

Grgur Ninski (Gregory of Nin), Split, Croatia

By that I mean the kind of things that look like they should be behind glass or a velvet rope, but the point is to reach out and touch them. Or specifically, rub them for good luck.

Picture it: Salt Lake City, 2002: a loonie was buried under centre ice at the Olympic hockey venue (for totally legit reasons), and both the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams went on to win gold medals. A nation goes nuts. The great Wayne Gretzky himself had this lucky loonie dug up from the ice and donated it to the Hockey Hall of Fame where it went on display. I, who had never had any desire to step foot in the Hall of Fame before, found myself making a pilgrimage to see this fabled coin and, even better, touch it. Together, thousands of Canadian hockey fans had rubbed this coin for good luck to the point where you could barely make out the loon usually in relief on the face; it had been worn practically smooth.

For me it was one touch, but it was one among countless and we live in a world where everyone is looking for a little piece of luck, because good luck charms are everywhere – and I rub them all any chance I get, just like everyone else.

La Chouette, l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Dijon

Have you laid your paws on “La Chouette”, the owl carved in stone on the corner of a church wall in Dijon, France? If you haven’t, you might want to go soon before it’s completely unrecognizable.

How about the vaguely Dumbledore-ish statue outside the gates of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia? If you rub his big toe, it’s good luck – his toe is currently about 5000 times brighter than the rest of him thanks to the regular polishing it gets.

On a more spiritual note, Catholics can pay their respect to the Virgin Mary and Jesus while at Montserrat in Spain. The basilica on the mountain holds the famous La Moreneta, the Black Virgin statue. She is mostly contained behind glass, but one of her hands (holding a sphere) is exposed for pilgrims to touch and people have been making the trek to Montserrat for centuries to do just that.

In fact, I often can’t help myself from reaching out and touching things I’m probably not supposed to. At Parc Güell, I couldn’t resist giving the mosaic lizard a light pat on the head as I passed him on the stairs. Just be careful if you follow my lead – that poor lizard has been through enough.

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Even though this is my third post on alcoholic beverages, I’m not much of a drinker, particularly when I’m by myself. But I was in Paris at Thanksgiving (in Canada, this would be the second Monday in October), and I decided to treat myself to a meal in a restaurant a step up from the cafes I’d been haunting so far. I decided on the boeuf bourguignon and a lemon tarte, and was going to splurge on some wine to accompany it all. However, looking at the menu, I was baffled: 35 cl, 45 cl, etc. It wasn’t pricing, but I didn’t know what it meant. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I was too shy to ask and ordered sparkling water instead.

I never gave this another thought until I was in Rome, and again was confronted with a wine menu I could barely decipher. I saw a white house wine, 75 cl for something like 8 or 9 euros. I’d realized by that point that this was the volume in centilitres, but for some reason, I could not picture how much wine 75 cl would be. I was used to paying $8 or $9 for a glass of wine in a restaurant at home, so in perfect vacation logic, 8 euros for a glass just made sense.

I felt like an idiot moments later when the waiter brought a bottle of wine to my table for one (for those still as foggy as I was, 75 cl = 750 ml, or the equivalent of about 6 glasses of wine). In my defense:

  1. I was on vacation, newly arrived and jet-lagged
  2. The centilitre is not a common unit of volume in Canada; litres and millilitres are used almost exclusively
  3. Math is hard, yo!

My choices seemed to be either waste a perfectly good bottle of wine that I was already paying for by only drinking a glass or two, or get tanked on my first night in Rome and hope I stumbled back to my hotel in good shape. I chose option C instead: while I didn’t drink the whole bottle, I did put a very serious dent in it (I believe my final tally was about 4 glasses).

Approximately a half hour later, I rose from the table after my meal, feeling no pain. Though the world was spinning a bit, I still managed to walk away without tripping or running into anything. Luckily, my plan that night was to take a night walk around some of Rome’s more famous public spaces; though I was acutely aware of every step I took, the fresh night air (and the tartufo I stopped for in the Piazza Navona) restored my equilibrium and I no longer felt as lightheaded.

I’d been schooled, and I’m a better wine drinker for it.

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One of my favourite movies is Amelie, set in the Parisian village of Montmartre, and one memorable scene takes place at the Sacre Coeur Basilica. Amelie has asked Nino, a man she desires but is too shy to speak to, to meet at the carousel at the base of the roughly one million steps up to the church in order to return to him something he has lost.

Carousel in a public square in Beaune, France

So when I found myself in Paris a few years after seeing that film for the first time, I was completely thrilled to reach the base of the Sacre Coeur to find that the carousel was real and not just movie scene-setting. Of course, I took a picture in order to capture just a bit of a movie I love dearly. While I’ve come across many carousels in amusement parks here in North America, to see one on its own on a street in Paris is, to me, living proof of the old-world charm, whimsy and romance people have come to associate with this city.

It was not the only carousel I saw in Paris, though I didn’t take pictures of any of the others. As I explored other areas of France on a later trip, I found a love of carousels must be a country-wide thing because I began to see them in some unexpected places.

A rainy day in Reims

I think my favourite was in Reims, in the midst of shoe shopping – I was walking down a cobble-stoned street, and found one just randomly between some buildings. It looked a bit out of place, but I was happy to see it there nonetheless. It had been rainy and gloomy that day, so the cheery music and lights at the carousel was a delight (especially as I wasn’t having much luck with finding shoes that I liked enough to contemplate hauling them around in my backpack for another week or so).

I was doing something ordinary and every-day feeling (shopping), but seeing the carousel added that little touch of something out-of-the-ordinary that reminded me that I was in anything but my normal routine.

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My first night in Paris, I was feeling a little overwhelmed. I was in a new city, travelling by myself, and I was in a place I’d been wanting to visit for a very long time. Not sure where to begin, I left the café where I had dinner and walked up towards the Seine. I wandered along the streets, getting a feel for the city where I’d be spending the next few days, when I came to the river bank and saw the Notre Dame cathedral with the full moon high in the sky above it.

I stood there for quite a while, drinking in the night air and the incredible sight of that moon framing such an iconic symbol of Paris. Of course, I wanted to take a photo and capture the moment for posterity, and what you see above is the result. Are you underwhelmed? I sure was when I saw it.

My camera does have a couple of night settings and I can’t remember if I used one of them to take this particular photo or not. I’ve found the night settings are useless, at least for me since I don’t have a steady hand. I’ve experimented over time with flash vs. no flash, different settings, etc., but I’ve never been 100 per cent satisfied with the product. I tend to delete most of my night photo attempts, but kept a few that for one reason or another I liked.

In the full moon photo, the glow around the moon is more pronounced than it probably would have been in a sharper photo, and I like the zig-zaggy nature of the lights. I can’t look at it for very long without feeling like my eyes are going to start crossing, but the soft, misty atmosphere is actually reflective of my mood that night, and so I think in the end it’s actually a successful photo. I look at it and I’m back on a Paris street at night with that full moon greeting me and telling me everything is going to be all right.

Paris is a beautiful city at night. Many of its most popular attractions are lit up, and the streets are so full of life even into the wee hours. I persisted in trying to capture even a fraction of that beauty, so I do have some souvenirs as amateurish as they may seem. I just hope the next time I’m there, I have a better camera with me.

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Unlike Paris Hilton, my life has been more Asti Spumanti than Dom Perignon. A friend of mine splurged on a little bottle of Veuve Clicquot a few years ago for New Year’s Eve and I’m pretty sure it was my first taste of true French champagne. By law, only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France can be labelled as “champagne”; though many other regions produce a similar product, they can only be known as “sparkling wines”. French champagne can be notoriously expensive, perhaps in part due to this exclusivity of name.

I had been looking forward to a tour of the Veuve Clicquot champagne caves (or cellars) during a stop in Reims, France, but I had been plagued with one of the worst colds I’ve ever had. I had already been suffering with a hacking cough for a few days, so I was miserable and tired from lack of sleep when we made our way over to the winery.

The cellars were located deep underground, and so were dark, cold and damp. The stone walls actually had some kind of chalky finish to them, which made them very spongy and cool to the touch. This was done to help absorb and control moisture that can build up underground.

Our guide provided a thorough history of not only the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin House and Madame Clicquot, the woman often called “La Grande Dame de la Champagne“, but also the “riddling” technique she developed in the early 1800s that resulted in the dry champagne that is so valued today. She is also credited with helping to establish champagne as a luxury product thanks to her efforts in placing her wines in royal courts across Europe. We were taken, step by step, through the traditional process of making champagne and passed by racks and racks of bottles in various stages of fermenting. Needless to say, the traditional ways have been overtaken by modern machines.

As we travelled through the various caverns, pausing to have a look at some display or another, the dampness quickly got to me and I could not stop coughing. Surrounded as I was by floor to ceiling rock walls, I was so embarrassed as that poor guide tried to be heard over me. Sound carries through stone caverns (go figure).

In the end, I consoled myself with the very thing I had been looking forward to the most: the tasting portion of the program, courtesy of a beautiful glass of Brut champagne.

For anyone interested, I found this interesting news story online about a 100-year-old case of champagne that had been found on the ocean floor from a shipwreck. According to the story, it may have been preserved enough by the conditions underwater to still be drinkable!

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