Friday, March 9, 2012

France with a side of Spain

It's been about two weeks since we've returned from our mini-journey to France (and a dip into Spain). There is always a period after a trip where your mind is being pulled by two polar opposites of thought: vacation-thinking, competing with realworld-thinking. It's like a tug-of-war game, and I'm always pulling for the vacation side. Daydreaming, wishing you were still there, hopeful that your next meal will taste as good. Then eventually, you're completely immersed back into regular life and what you have left are things like this, a journal blog, where you can go back and relive moments of our little adventure. So, here I am, trying to pickle some memories so I can taste how delicious they were a little later on. I've pickled a lot of memories here but if you just wanna see the pics, you can look at them here.

Everyone has their own travelling style, but at this point, we've clearly defined that we just like to 1) wander, and 2) eat. And we did a ton of both, with a side of art and culture.

Before the trip, I was trying to get down on some Rosetta Stone french lessons (which are amazing) and of course I wasn't exactly bilingual, but I did waaaay better than the last time and my french comprehension was through the roof compared to last time. I had some pretty awesome french teachers too... Like Romain, who was also the amazing host who let us stay with him and introduced us to his friend and roommate Jean Guy.

I learned a bunch and merged some french into my english. Like the new word for wandering -- the verb flanneur (to wander). Dave's knowledge of Paris always makes for easy-breezy flanning and of course, tasty meals.

Paris was freezing but it's such a beautiful city, it's easy to forgive. I didn't take a ton of pictures because well, I took a ton the last time which wasn't all that long ago, but here's a small sampling and you can see a few more on my Flickr.

And oh, those tasty meals. This was my first time in Paris as a meat-eater so there were some glorious moments. Dave took me to this lovely, lovely little bistro called Le Temps de Cerises where I was introduced to Cassoulet. I'd never even heard of this dish before, but it was bonkers. It's a slow-cooked casserole that originated in the south of France, and ours had pork sausage, pork belly, goose, duck confit and haricot beans in this really delicious rich sauce. And I also tried beef cheeks for the first time ever (but not the last time in France, as they were pretty common all around, and yummy). The french take their meat seriously, and they do it very well!

I had taken some scrumptious food shots on my iphone but sadly, it was stolen on our last day in Paris, and a bunch of really lovely photos went with it. So I can't show you pictures of the crazy duck confit we ate, or the buttery pastries, the delicious breakfast our friends Greg and Agnes made for us, or the turkish pistachio cookies we found in Montmartre. But take my word for it, we ate very well.

We packed a picnic, french cheese, charcuterie and wine, and headed to the night train to set off for Barcelona. And, lugging a big suitcase up one of the huge staircases in the metro, I felt something funky going on with my handbag and when we got to the train, I discovered my phone was stolen. And what also went with it were the directions to our hotel. When we arrived after taking the overnight train, the city felt empty -- partly due to the fact that it was very early Sunday morning, but also because it definitely wasn't tourist season (pros and cons to that). We got off the subway and just started wandering, hoping we would stumble upon a clue about our hotel. We stopped a woman in the street to ask and she didn't know. And a few minutes later, a man approached us and asked if we were looking for the Ibis hotel -- it turned out the woman had stopped him to ask him, and said if he saw two tourists to direct them to the right spot. HOW NICE IS THAT??

We went flanning and stumbled upon one of the most bizarre and amazing things I have ever seen. We could hear people cheering and thought we were walking past a soccer game but it turned out it was a Human Tower competition!!!! Have you ever seen a Human Tower? Or a Castell, as I've learned is the proper name in the Catalonian region of Spain. People form a base, then more people climb up to create another level, and another, until finally small children climb to the top, forming a human tower that is ten people high. Amazing and totally insane. Especially when the square is full of flying pigeons who threatened to collide with the small children at the top.

And we ate lots of tapas. Which were good, but nothing mindblowing. I did the research to find out where the good spots were, but even after visiting a handful of them, overall, I was a little disappointed in our food in Spain. Although from what I hear, just like you don't go to Germany for the food, you don't go to Spain for it either. There is a really typical tapas dish called Patates Bravas, which I think translates to 'wild potatoes' and for the most part, I would say there was nothing wild about them. They're basically homefries served with spicy mayo and most were nothing special, except for this delicious little number below, which also served us delicious paella (we were in Spain, we had to). The place was called Pollo Rico, and was patronized mainly by men with no teeth, but the food really was good!

Despite my general dissatisfaction with the food we ate, my obsession with all things "pattern" was on overdrive in Barcelona. Wow. Incredible tile work, facades that haven't been touched since the 60s (thank goodness for that -- why fix it if it ain't broke), and a general interest in making the exterior surroundings beautiful. For me, it was all about foyers of apartment buildings.

Barcelona is beautiful, but for me, Gaudi and his insane structures are where it's at. When I was in Barcelona the first time, the Sagrada Familia was not open to the public. Ten years later, a ton of progress had been made and the inside absolutely blew... my... mind. Awe struck. Gaping jaw. Wide eyes. Incredible. If I knew someone who was looking for God, this is where I would direct them. It's still not done and next time I go to Barcelona, I can't wait to see how it has continued to transform.

And then there was Park Güell, this totally insane garden complex which was equally amazing but in a more playful way. Again, love of pattern -- my head was going to explode. It looks like it's made of candy.

After 4 days in Barcelona and a lovely time overall, we debated the possibility of spending some more time in Spain, but we let our bellies guide us -- and they told us to go back to France.

On the train trip away from Barcelona, it was clear we were entering back into France. Beautiful little villages, clay-tiled rooftops, thin rows of tall skinny trees and views of the Pyrenees mountains. Our rail passes were pretty flexible so we chose to hop off at some random little spot on the rail line called Narbonne. We got off the train and immediately, it was like the howling winds were trying to tell us something... Run! Go! This is not the place for you! We started to walk around and there was just something kind of cold and uninviting about the place. After struggling to find any kind of nourishment, we renamed the city Pas Bonne, and hopped on the next train outta there and got off at the lovely Avignon, where we spent a few nights and used it as a base for doing some daytrips to other little towns in the south.

We went in search of a nice meal, and we found it at this restaurant called Caveau du Theatre. What we also found was foie gras. Don't hate me, but it turns out... it's crazy tasty. Like, it's insane. This particular one was a foie gras terrine served with onion chutney and led me down the same path about trois fois more while we travelled in France. My sincere thank yous and apologies to the little ducks and geese who made it.

After dinner, we explored some drinks and more of the city, which was cast in golden light. What a beautiful little spot, with a fortified old town. It had some magic at night, but it's also pretty by day.

Nimes was even nicer! What a gem. It's an old, quaint town known for its Roman amphitheatre but I know it for the adorable little streets that charmed me completely.

And then we hopped on the train and went to Arles, which is a place where Van Gogh spent a ton of time, if you recognize the name. It was an old, pastel-tinted city. It was also where we had one of my favourite little picnic lunches, having gone to a butcher shop to get some duck rillette and to the bakery to get one of the best baguettes I've ever had. Beautiful.

I didn't know what a rillette was until Dave introduced me to it. It's similar to a pâté. Often made with pork, but also other meats like duck or goose or even seafood, the meat is cut finely, salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it falls apart, and then cooled with some of the fat to form a paste. And it's delicious.

An amazing couple of days. What perfect surprises these places were.

The next day we headed off to Mont Pellier, to see and stay with some of Dave's very best friends, Ben and Lorenie. (And their amazing little girl Rachel, who proved to me that I am not smarter than a 3-year old. Her french blew mine out of the water). Ben and Lorenie are awesome. Ben treated us to some super tasty french food I'd never tried, including Tielle, an octopus tart, and Seiche à la Rouille, which is basically a tomato- and white wine-based octopus stew. Yum.

B&L also took us on some pretty great road trips to the Pont de Diable, and my favourite, this amazing little village called St Guilhem le Desert that looked untouched by time. And we saw the most amazing sunset over french mountain tops.

We also ventured off to Bouzigues, this nice seaside town, and got down on some serious seafood.

Another daytrip was to Carcassonne which is the home of Cassoulet (!!) and has this crazy old medieval castle. We got off the train and headed up, and it was just totally deserted. It looked as though it had stayed relatively untouched by time and tourists. It looked like the kind of place that people forgot about, and the only people that patronized the castle were teenagers looking for a good drinking spot. It was so refreshing. Until we went around another few corners and discovered that we had just gone up the wrong entrance, and that it was completely developed for tourism. But, it was fun while it lasted.

Back to Paris
And while I have very few pictures to prove it, we had an amazing time in Mont Pellier and were super sad to leave. We headed back to Paris, where we found one final epic meal to complete the trip at La Strasbourgeoise which serves Alsation food which was also new to me and one of the tastiest meals we had the whole trip. Alsatian food is where french food meets german food. And the main reason we went was because Dave said we had to go for choucroute. If you like sauerkraut, which I do, you would love this dish.

The dish is basically a sauerkraut stew... sauerkraut served with pork, sausage, and potatoes. Super simple but super delicious. We also tried Flammekueche, also known as Tarte flambée and with my poor french I translated it as "ham and cheese pizza" but it was soooo much more! It's a crusty dough rolled out and covered with crème fraîche, carmelized onions and lardons. Crazy delicious! And last but not least... my absolute favourite dessert in the world... crème brulée. And this one was to die for. A perfect end to a delicious trip.

My final thoughts
The food in France just tastes so amazing, but it's usually based on the simplest ingredients, and you're just left wondering, WHY does this taste so good? My sister was telling me there is a word for this, a french word nonetheless: terroir, which describes the special qualities that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place has upon particular foods. Basically, unique land produces unique results that you can't mimic elsewhere. And I'm a firm believer. And the bread! Even when I buy the fanciest artisanal baguette at home, it just doesn't even come close to the baguettes you can get at the bakery on any given corner in France.

This time around, I couldn't believe just how incredibly warm and friendly and helpful everyone was. Even after having my phone stolen, I feel like this trip restored my faith in the goodness and kindness of strangers.

All of my trip pictures are posted here, take a look here!

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