Pastries for lunch

A freelance assignment required me to visit a new pastry shop in Geist this morning. I know, I know, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

After chatting with the chef owner, I purchased some of his tempting wares to taste-test at home. So here’s what my lunch today consisted of:

Bakery at Geist goodies

The croissant was a little on the smallish side, but other than that detail, was pretty close to what you find in Paris. The blueberry lemon scone was fragrant and super-moist, not at all dry and crumbly like the traditional ones I’ve had in Ireland or England. Then there was something called a Paris Brest…

Let me tell you. If you’re looking for a devilishly decadent over-the-top pastry, this is it. In simplest terms, it’s a sandwich of sorts made with puff pastry filled with pastry cream (hazelnut-flavored in this case) and topped with almonds and powdered sugar. I have an unapologetic sweet tooth, and I could only manage a few bites. Mercy me. The cream was so thick and rich, I wondered if I could get away with slathering it on my face as a moisturizer. Yummy.

It’s now nearly dinnertime and I’m just coming down from the sugar buzz. With any luck, a glass or two of wine will kill the headache.

(Incidentally, if you’re interested in enjoying some of these goodies for yourself, they came from The Bakery at Geist, in the Geist Shopping Center strip mall at Fox Rd. and Oaklandon. Tell Chef Ron I sent you.)

Viva la France!

For more info:

http://blog.thebakeryatgeist.com/

Final thoughts on France

As our train slowly sways its way out of Gare du Nord before picking up speed bound for Cologne, I can’t help but reflect on the past 10 days we’ve spent in France. Several impressions stand out in recent memory:

For me, the food is the best thing about France, bar none. Ah, the food. I’ve already covered my love for the street markets in a prior entry, but this affection also extends to so many other items as well. I think I could eat croissants for breakfast every morning for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy about it. Perhaps a pain au chocolat thrown in here and there for a little variety. And crepes…

I almost enjoy watching crepes being made more than I do eating them. Well, almost. The way these vendors know how to pour the perfect amount of batter onto the steaming greased griddle and use their little sandbox toy-contraption to spread it out, then wiggle a long flat spatula under the whole thing, fold it and flip it to the other side without tearing the delicate golden brown crepe… it’s half master skill, half art form. My go-to crepe is one spread with a layer of melting drippy Nutella, but I also had a delicious savory version that was stuffed with ham, cheese, olives and mushrooms. The crepe master managed to position the cheese so that as it melted, it oozed out the sides, turning all crunchy and brown on the grill. He then folded the whole thing a couple times like origami, and handed it over. I was in raptures nibbling the crusty cheese away to get to the actual crepe-wrapped goodness inside.

A short list of the best things I’ve had to eat while in France would have to include the salads I made with my street market produce purchases; the breads, pastries and preserves at a place called Le Pain Quotient during our first Paris breakfast with hubby’s mom, thyme-scented rotisserie chicken from a Parisian butcher shop, a chocolate macaron with ganache filling, Brie-smeared baguettes, and the steak dinner I prepared in our Aix hotel room kitchenette.

Second thing worth mentioning: I do a hell of a lot of walking here, without even thinking about it. Contrary to popular belief, some French women DO get fat, but they’re few and far between. With the amount of passive exercise they get, it’s not difficult to see why this is so.

Since neither hubby nor I like being cooped up in a cramped hotel room, we make a big effort to get out and about on foot as much as possible. I always come home from our European adventures with looser-fitting pants and, in the words of my dear hubby, feeling fit as a racing snake. I’m blessed to have good genes that keep me fairly thin to begin with, but I walk my ass off when we’re abroad. Literally. I keep intending to bring a pedometer with me on these trips to see just how much ground I’m covering, but never manage to remember to buy one beforehand. No joke, we walk for MILES, and that doesn’t even include stairclimbing. Take it from someone who struggles with a perpetually flat-as-a-pancake booty — my butt has never looked better than it does right now. I may just have hubby take a photo of it for me to post, I’m so proud.

Not to mention, my European travel diet consists of often spotty meal planning. For example, we might arrive at a hotel late and not get to eat a decent dinner. Or, say, we sleep in and miss breakfast. Whatever the case, I rarely eat three full meals a day here. I know I’m definitely burning off way more calories than I’m taking in, so I don’t feel bad about allowing myself an extra croissant, real cream in my coffee, or a big honking chunk of bleu cheese. Which is cool, because the French don’t do low-fat. Why would they when food tastes this good? The closest I’ve seen to diet anything is Coca Light (Diet Coke), but no one seems to order it.

On the far end of the continuum, many of the pale waifish teenagers and early twenty-somethings in France are impossibly skinny, seeming to exist solely on cigarettes and espresso. They look nearly vampirish. It’s unnatural. I want to rip the smokes out of their mouths, hold them down in the bright sunlight and forcefeed them creme fraiche.

Which brings me to my next point: smoking. Still compulsory in these parts. It’s a minor victory that smoking has been banned inside restaurants and cafes, but anywhere al fresco, it’s still fair game. Bummer, because the best part of the whole café experience is sitting at one of the outdoor tables, sipping your coffee and simply watching the world go by. A little hard to do when you’re worrying about your toddler inhaling loads of second-hand smoke from the oblivious mademoiselle sitting two feet away. And the second you step off a train or out of a hotel lobby, you’re walking straight into the heart of darkness that is the unofficial smoking section. I grew irritated with seeing young women galore pushing baby strollers around, butts aglow and hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Alas… let’s move on.

I wholeheartedly admit, fashion is not my forte. Just ask the two gal-pals who came to my home and staged a wardrobe intervention earlier this year, dismissing nearly half the items in my closet as “Spongebob Squareshirts” and “grannywear.” It’s no surprise that I feel like a fish out of water in France. Paris, especially. The younger French women wear some crazy-ass stuff that I wouldn’t even attempt to get away with (or want to) back home – think bubble skirts and leggings, or jean shorts with black tights and knee boots in the dead of winter. I saw one guy wearing a pair of pants that were slung so low in the middle, even M.C. Hammer would have passed on them. Honestly. It looked like he took a dump in them and forgot to change.

However, with age comes wisdom. Many of the more mature women dress impeccably. I can’t even recall any actual outfits, but they all just seem put together in a way that appears simultaneously effortless and tres chic at the same time. A jaunty scarf (I’m telling you, these women know more creative knots than a sailor), fabulous footwear, a classic bob haircut, a swipe of red lipstick… they know how to pull it all off.

Fashion isn’t restricted to humans here, either. I’ve seen some seriously pampered pooches out and about, dressed in sweaters, raincoats and hats that probably cost more than I spend on my own clothes. The French LOVE their dogs. I just wish they would do a better job of cleaning up after them. Everywhere you look — poop. You really have to watch your step closely, lest you wind up with a soleful. To make matters worse, the piles are all but camouflaged this time of year by the brown leaves on the ground. Taking a stroll down the street is like walking through a minefield.

I somehow managed to tread in a big smear and didn’t even know it until I got back to the hotel room and started wondering where that awful shit smell was coming from. After deducing that the toddler’s diaper wasn’t to blame, I realized the bottom of my boot was caked. Even trouncing through puddles and shuffling through the grass didn’t get rid of it. I ultimately managed to scrape the merde out of all the tiny grooves with a twig. Ugh. The very next day, the toddler and I were playing in the expanse of grass across from our hotel when some woman’s yappy furry friend came bounding over to us. As he/she/it enthusiastically jumped all over me, I saw that this dog had apparently stepped in its own mess and with each bounce, was now transferring it onto the tops of my only remaining pair of clean shoes.

I certainly can’t wrap up my summation of one of the most beautiful and vibrant countries in the world talking about crap, so I’ll change the subject to a happier theme. I have this theory that cities are like people, and you can have relationships with them just like you would other human beings. To that end, I’ll attempt a little word association game to describe my impressions of the places we’ve been and seen:

Paris = Majestic. Magical. Cultural. Stylish. Feast of the senses. Out of my league.

Aix en Provence = Graceful. Friendly. Fashionable. Laid-back. Intelligent.

Marseille = Scrappy. Persevering. History. Tough talking, but with a soft side. Surprising.

And with that, I bid France adieu and au revoir, looking forward the rest of the week in Germany.

Aix marks the spot

Our week here in Provence is flying by. It’s time to start thinking about packing for our departure to Germany on Monday — on the move once again!

I think if pressed, I’d have to say my favorite thing about Aix, and about Paris and the whole of France in general, would have to be the street markets. For starters, the food products are the most beautiful versions I’ve ever seen anywhere, and they taste absolutely as good as they look.

Aix street market produce stand

 

The best meals I’ve had all week have been composed of stuff I’ve bought at the markets. Salads made with picture-perfect produce so fresh, it snaps with every bite. Farm-fresh eggs with creamy bright yellow yolks scrambled with a little cheese and served alongside steaming coffee and a croissant. Yum, yum, yum. Food just doesn’t get simpler or more flavorful than this.

the most stunning salad ever

The street markets happen nearly every day in one spot or another around town, and each I walked through was better than the last. Not that the first was any slouch, but the second and third I saw put it to shame. Some markets seem to focus on one specific theme, i.e. flowers, clothing, antiques, food and the like. You might also find booths tucked in here and there selling odd stuff like cosmetics, toiletries, purses, kitchen utensils, those weird little head-scratcher devices, and more.

Obviously, the food markets are the ones I’ve been most taken with. Just imagine gorgeous row after row of the cutest sweet-as-candy tiny strawberries, vats of olives large enough to swim in, all manner of charcuterie, mouthwatering fresh baked Madeline cookies, and fragrant roasting chickens. The most intriguing booth I saw held a huge array of every kind of spice imaginable, all beautifully displayed in little square bowls, plus huge bowls of colorful peppercorns and salts. The vendor scooped out small portions of whatever you wanted, weighing each before packaging in a little plastic sack or little glass jar like some sort of mad scientist amid a chemistry experiment. I could have stood there for an hour just reading the labels on each spice and smelling its wonderful aroma. For foodies like me, it was the best perfume counter in the world.

spice vendor at Aix street market

The food at the local supermarkets isn’t nearly as nice as what you get at the street markets, in my humble opinion, although there is a pretty decent gigantic superstore a ten-minute bus ride away from our hotel (not nearly as nice as the Iper store in Milan). When we originally asked the concierge about where to find a grocery store, she tried to direct us in not-so-comprehensive English and kept mentioning a casino. Naturally, hubby and I assumed she meant the store was located near a casino. It was only after a small level of frustration we realized that the name of the grocery store chain is actually “Casino.” To make matters even more confusing, there IS an authentic casino as well on the bus line downtown. Eventually, we got it all sorted out.

I attempted to attend three ex-pat coffee meetings this week. I actually made it to one. Couldn’t find the café for the first one for the life of me, even with spotty consultation from hubby’s iPhone GPS app. The toddler and I did make it to the second, mostly thanks to having prescouted the location earlier in the week – the adorable restaurant called Croquemitoufle. The crowd hovered around 15, I’d say, and two women there had Indiana connections — one hailed from Elkhart and another was born near Ft. Wayne. It was interesting to chat with some fellow Americans, but we didn’t really have enough time to get into much in-depth discussion. Mainly because I’d forgotten the buses were running on a holiday schedule that day and by the time I actually caught one to go downtown, we’d already missed half the event. Anyway, the women I met were lovely, although the two I really had the most opportunity to chat with both sound like they will be heading back to the states sometime next year. Boo!

The third coffee was this morning, but we missed it because we decided to take a daytrip instead. Hubby, the toddler and I caught the bus to Marseille to take a walk around the Vieux Port (Old Port) and have some lunch. And what do you think we found? More markets! Fish and flowers, to be precise. We arrived late morning and I have a feeling we missed the majority of the action, but there were still plenty of fishermen and women lined up selling their catches, many still wriggling in their water tables. The fish, not the men and women… The fish stands lined one side of the port; another side was full of exquisite (and cheap!) fresh flowers of all shapes, sizes and shades.

Marseilles market tulips

Marseille is the oldest city in France, and it shows its age. It’s scrappy in much the same way as outer Milan is scrappy; the buildings are old and many are graffiti-laden and in need of some serious repair. The port itself is pretty and there’s a breathtaking big castle up on the hill overlooking the city, but off the beaten path, things are pretty dirty and dilapidated. The sight of laundry hanging off the balconies galore lent a touch of charm and color.

sunny Marseilles

I had intended to seek out a bowl of the signature Marseillaise dish, bouillabaisse, but we really didn’t come across any cafes or bistros serving the garlicky, brothy fish stew that looked appealing during our very abbreviated visit. I settled for an unsatisfying open-faced bruschetta that was really nothing more than a saucer-sized piece of bread topped with sliced tomatoes and a mountain of cheese, then run under the broiler until not quite toasty. Hubby thinks I’m complaining all the time, but this really was mediocre for seven euros.

We scored much better with this evening’s meal. After a bus ride back to Aix and a long walk through the oldest section of town, we worked up an appetite to shop for some hearty meat and potatoes. Hitting up the specialty stores along Rue D’Italie, we came away with two ruby-red slabs of faux filet (American equivalent = New York strip), potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, a baguette and wine. Cooking on our miniature two-burner electric stove using one pot and one pan, I somehow managed to transform these items into a Provencal-ish meal that I daresay was as good as you’d find in some of the local bistros. Seared steaks with garlic butter and blue cheese crumbles, mashed potatoes with crème fraiche, steamed broccoli and mushrooms topped with a sprinkling of cheese, slices of fresh crusty baguette — is there anything more fulfilling than eating something that turns out to be EXACTLY what you wanted, and having it be every bit as good as you were hoping it would be? That was tonight’s meal for me.

And on that note, I bid everyone a fond bon soir.

Irish eyes are smiling

I’m sad and embarrassed to admit I’ve neglected my blog so much these past few months, but let’s get jumpstarted back into the entries with my current trip to Ireland!

Hubby is doing a bunch of business in Europe this summer, so instead of a series of trips back and forth over the pond, the toddler and I came along for an extended stay. We’ve settled into my mother-in-law’s house in Millstreet, County Cork as our home base for about six weeks. We’re currently halfway through the trip, and with all the side jaunts we’ve been doing to see various and sundry relatives, the time is flying by.

This is my sixth trip to Ireland, and the weather this time around by far blows away any other visit. Warm, sunny and barely a hint of rain in the past three weeks. Unbelievable for a country where you are likely to experience, as they say, four seasons in one day. I’ve packed horribly wrong by bringing jeans, long-sleeved shirts and even a sweater or two when I could have gotten away with shorts, sandals and sundresses. Who knew? Oddly enough, from what we can tell, Indianapolis has been plagued by terrible thunderstorms and tornado watches since we’ve been away. Talk about a role reversal…

Although Ireland is still full of the same gorgeous green ancient scenery as it has been in the six years I’ve been visiting, I do see some changes happening in my two most recent trips. First of all, the younger generation (and by younger, I mean mine) seems to be moving away from drinking tea into a coffee culture. Cafes and coffee shop/bakeries have been springing up like weeds, serving all manner of hot beverages including fancy flavored lattes. Starbucks hasn’t yet taken over; there was a location next door to the hotel where we stayed in Dublin, but it’s been the only one I’ve seen so far. Sadly, most of the coffee is mediocre at best. Lots of instant powdered, and lots of not-expertly prepared versions. Of course, hubby and I are coffee snobs, having sampled the really good java in France and Italy where baristas really know what they’re doing. Still, I imagine the quality of the Irish joe will only keep improving within the next few years to meet the growing demand.

Other big changes are taking place on the restaurant scene. In the past, dining out in Ireland has been a limited proposition. Menus were very abbreviated, most items automatically came with fries/chips, and everything was pretty expensive regardless of quality or quantity. For that reason, people here don’t seem to dine out very often. Add up the costs for two adults and a couple of kids and you’re likely to drop some serious cash on a dinner or a take-away. (That’s take-out for my fellow Americans.)

Thus, most of our meals have been eaten at home, lovingly prepared by my mother-in-law or one of hubby’s sisters, and they’ve been delicious. But I’m also happy to report I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the meals we’ve enjoyed out these past few weeks.

For example – hubby and I escaped for a date night dinner a couple weeks ago while staying with my sister-in-law in Bandon. Destination? A renovated gastropub called Poachers, renowned for its fish dishes. The place was fairly busy at 8 p.m. on the Tuesday night we were there; obviously, the local community is embracing the changes.

Poachers Inn, Bandon

The menu was nicely upscale, full of pretty fancy, borderline fussy stuff with elaborate garnishes and saucing. Hubby ordered a stuffed chicken breast served with ratatouille vegetables and mashed potatoes. I went for a three-course prix-fixe menu for 25 euros. My starter was a handful of small toasts topped with a whipped goat cheese mousse-like concoction, slivers of preserved lemon and thin slices of beet. A fresh herb salad with pickled cucumbers anchored the center of the plate. Yum.

My main course was two delectable crab-and-prawn cakes topped with a mango plum salsa relish, creamy mayonnaise tartar sauce and more salad. Not a potato in sight – crazy!!! For dessert, hubby and I shared my warm gingerbreadish sticky toffee pudding with a scoop of whipped cream and hearty drizzle of caramel sauce. All in all, a splendid meal. And even more impressive, our total bill (with a couple beers and two glasses of wine) hovered around $75 dollars, easily fair value for the amount and caliber of food.

Restaurant diversity is expanding, too. On an overnight in Dublin, I was thrilled to see all ilk of ethnic eateries. Even in little Millstreet, there is an Indian restaurant and a new pizza place I’d like to try. In Dublin, we ate dinner at a small, modern Italian ristorante near our hotel. Hubby ordered his tried-and-true standby – a pizza salami and I opted for a penne pasta with pesto and thick shavings of pungent parmesan. The food was solid and authentic, not the best I’ve ever had, but certainly tasty enough.

Breakfast the next morning was another story. Thanks to hubby’s fortuitous suggestion to follow an unexplored side street, we came across a tiny café advertising breakfast all day. Sold, and in we went. As I mentioned earlier, cafes are popping up a dime a dozen all around these parts, but this was a particularly good one. We nestled into a small table toward the back under skylights next to a small open-air patio and started browsing through a menu full of breakfast choices.

After much consideration, hubby and I settled on the same item – a super-freshly prepared huge croissant sandwich with cheese, salty slabs of Irish bacon and scrambled egg, served with a small ramekin of delicious Ballymaloe tomato relish (a sweetish, spicy, chunky ketchup). For the toddler, we ordered pancakes — which I keep forgetting are actually crepes here — with sliced banana and Nutella. We also couldn’t resist ordering a “Babychino” for him, a cup of sweet steamed milk with chocolate shavings on top, which our picky little boy soundly refused to drink, although he did polish off the crepes and Nutella without much coaxing.

Speaking of Ballymaloe, Ireland’s well-known culinary school empire, I have several gift vouchers that I’m hoping to make use of with a wonderful lunch or dinner, if not an overnight stay at the inn. More to come on that later…

Other meals that stand out thus far – a simple traditional roast chicken and boiled ham dinner from my mother-in-law. Rounded out with classic roasted potatoes and vegetables, it was Irish cooking at its best. Also memorable was a fresh cannelloni my brother-in-law whipped up, complete with handmade pasta and a savory ricotta/mascarpone/ground beef filling and topped with tomatoes. Oh. My. Goodness. It was melt-in-your-mouth fabulous.

Here’s to more good eats to come, and slainte!

Buon giorno, Milano!

We’ve been in Milan for almost a day now, and here are some of my first impressions…

I must start by mentioning, the train ride here was HELLA long. Two transfers (Zurich, Switzerland and Lugano, Italy) and took about 10 hours start to finish. The scenery was beautiful – journeying through a portion of the Alps was particularly spectacular. Hubby is still fighting off a cold and tried to rest as much as possible; the toddler was a little super trooper and tolerated sitting on our laps, napping and looking out the windows for the most part of the trip. It was an exhausting day, and we were never so glad to pull into Milano Centrale at long last.

I think the train station itself is probably a taste of what’s to come here in Italy. The place looks like a museum. Or a cathedral. I’m not sure which. It is gorgeous with a huge domed ceiling that belies something greater than just a commuter stop. We managed to lug all of our bags into a taxi and cabbed to the hotel.

Our hotel is perched on the corner of a busy street. The room is smaller than our digs in Cologne, but the bed and the pillows are more comfortable. It didn’t really matter much last night – after 10 hours on trains, I could have slept on the sidewalk. The toddler is enchanted with the bidet in our bathroom, which concerns me a little bit. We’re staying a ways out from the main city center in a more residential area of apartments. A quick glance around confirms that there may not be much to do within walking distance of the hotel, unlike in Cologne where everything you could possibly want or need was within a block or two. Salvation – there is a tram stop just outside the hotel that zips right downtown to the Duomo.

As it was getting on to 8 p.m. by the time we arrived at the inn, we quickly ditched the bags and walked down the street in search of food. Hubby has spent a little time in Milan and is sorta familiar with our area, so he’d already sussed out a small casual pizzeria-ristorante about two blocks away called Il Pavone. My first thought when we walked in was, “Wow, this place is pink.” The walls are a shockingly bright shade of Pepto Bismol. I guess I expected something more subdued for some reason. No matter, though.

A pretty, friendly hostess immediately squeezed us into some seats at the end of a six-top table. The place is small and tables are kinda jammed together. If you’re not careful, you could end up rubbing elbows unintentionally. To my relief, no one looked twice at us rolling in with the stroller. A big flat-screen television on the wall drew more attention from the diners. Honestly, it was sort of like eating in front of the TV at home. At one point, we were treated to what looked like an Italian game show hosted by a couple of old farts and featuring dance numbers by two scantily clad hotties.

There was a steady flow of customers in and out of the restaurant while we were there, which I took as a good sign, and the plates we saw coming out of the kitchen looked insanely tasty. Rustic, hearty, uncomplicated Italian food. I was excited. And starving.

My college Italian is really rusty, but I recognized most of the food items on the menu and ordered the fusilli della casa (the fusilli pasta of the house), a mixed veggie salad and a ½ liter of the house red wine, or as they called it, the “wine on tap.” Nice. Hubby got spaghetti bolognese and a beer. All of it was FABULOUS. My pasta was a huge plate of noodles dressed in a combination of tomato, pesto and cream. Mmm, mmm, good.

The salad was super fresh and unadorned with dressing, leaving me to dude it up myself with the table condiment bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of parmesan. Perfect, and so refreshing to get a salad with slices of really good juicy red tomato, as opposed to the tasteless crap variety you usually find back home. We also got a basket of bread to share. The wine was really light, VERY drinkable, and went down like water. I had to monitor my intake closely, lest I get completely smashed.

We also made the brilliant discovery that the toddler LOVES grissani, those long, thin, crunchy, crackery-type breadsticks. A couple packages of those kept him more than occupied enough for us to enjoy our meal at a relaxed pace. I couldn’t believe how many he ate. On the way out, I saw a plate pass by that contained gnocchi with gorgonzola, completely stopping me in my tracks. Guess we all know what I’ll be ordering on our next visit! We returned to the room where all three of us took baths and slept the sleep of the dead for about nine hours.

This morning, we enjoyed an impressive continental breakfast here at the hotel. They really do it right, I have to give credit where credit is due and this was some spread! Cold cereals, yogurts, breads and rolls of all sorts, cold cuts, cheese, boiled eggs, juice, fruit, you name it. And all included as part of our hotel package – yay! It’s rare to find inclusive breakfasts in European hotels, so this is something we’ll definitely make good use of.

I ate the chocolate croissant to end all chocolate croissants. This little gem was composed of a blend of regular pastry dough and chocolate pastry dough, all wrapped around a thick layer of chocolate baked inside. And I made it into a triple hit by eating a small single-serving size Nutella spread. I seriously thought for a minute I was going to lapse into a chocolate coma. The coffee was top-notch as well. I was thrilled to get a cafe latte in the truest sense — small, dual carafes of strong coffee and steamed milk poured simultaneously to create the perfect cup.

We took a stroll down the block to find a supermarket and stock up on some in-room supplies. It is Saturday morning, so I suppose we should have expected the store to be busy, but this was ridiculous. It was the biggest clusterfuck I’ve ever seen. Aggressive shoppers, practically rolling over you to get to what they want, no one gets out of your way or makes room for you to pass in the crowded aisles – and I’m talking about frail little old ladies and harmless-looking little old men! Sheer craziness.

The store stock was something else, though. The produce was absolutely beautiful – if peppers and eggplants can be sexy, these are some sexy vegetables. Tins of fresh olives, cheese, hanging salamis, yum, yum, yum. It was a feast for the senses. The butcher shop featured a whole row of huge cured hams hanging off the back wall; there was an entire aisle dedicated to pasta and another to wine. The baby food section made me smile – it was the first time I’d seen jars of baby food containing proscuitto and fresh mozzarella. We made our purchases and got out without losing any limbs or getting into any fistfights, then the toddler and I returned to the hotel so hubby could run a few errands for his upcoming trade show this week. He later came back saying he’d walked by another market during the course of his errands and realized that the store we went to was actually the “LoBills” of Milan. He’s promised to take me back later.

hams

butcher counter at the supermarket

babyfood,jpg

Italian baby food - proscuitto and mozzarella!

After the efficiency, cleanliness and formality of Germany, Italy is really something of a shock to the system. You just can’t get in a hurry here. If you do, you’re likely to find yourself cooling your heels while everyone else chills and takes things at their own speed, wondering what the hell your problem is.

Case in point – coming out of the train station last night, we were on the lookout for a taxi that could accommodate our bags, plus a carseat and collapsible stroller. Mind you, we’d gotten everything into a station wagon in Germany with no problem… the first driver who pulled over to attend to us got about half of our stuff in his car, which was plenty big, and then decided he didn’t have enough room. He unloaded our bags again and pulled off, no offer to wave over a fellow cabbie or anything, leaving us unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk and back to square one. Several cabs later, hubby finally spotted a mini-van and we were set. His attitude was like “yeah, whatever, I’ll give you a ride,” but at least he got us to our destination.

Hubby calls Italy “scrappy.” It’s not that it’s dirty exactly, it’s just that everything seems slightly worse for wear and outdated. This is odd to say in Milan, perhaps the fashion capital of the world, but it’s true. The buildings look dingy, the streets are dirty and things just have a dilapidated feel. It is what it is, but I’m not complaining! I’m anxious to get into the main city center and take it all in, I’m sure there’s MUCH more to see and be seen.

Valentine's Day a la Francais

Oh my goodness, where to begin… let’s see. Breakfast the past few days has consisted of croissants and coffee – darn near the most perfect culinary combination ever invented.

Today is Valentine’s Day and hubby and I decided we would commemorate the occasion with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When in Paris… we took the Metro from Bastille to the Champs Elysees, walked down to L’Arc de Triomphe, then hoofed it over to the tower itself. On the way, we came across what has to be without a doubt the most amazing street market I have ever witnessed. To be sure, it was the mother of all farmers’ markets.

This market was all enclosed by one long narrow tent set-up and stretched on for nearly 8 blocks nonstop. It was stand after stand of the most beautiful offerings I’ve ever seen – everything from made-on-the-spot steaming cauldrons of paella to seafood, flowers, produce and even the occasional non-food items such as shirts and jewelry. Every single item was absolutely beautiful and laid out in displays of the utmost precision.

The French are obsessed with aesthetics, and this market was a perfect example. It’s not good enough to have some great produce mixed in with some so-so produce at the bottom of the bag. For example, you know how in American supermarkets you can buy a container of strawberries and at the bottom of every container you’ll find several berries that are starting to mold or are just not that ripe? Not so here. You can rest assured that every single berry in the bunch will be perfectly ripe, juicy and delicious. No waste whatsoever. It’s like that with every single thing you might want to buy, you’ll know it’s all of superior quality and freshness right down to the very last bite.

 

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

produce at the street market

produce at the street market

 

 

Hubby ordered a chocolat noir crepe from a made-to-order crepe stand. The crepe master manning the grills was an older gentleman who looked like he’d been creating these lovely treats his entire life and had the technique down to a science. Making the perfect crepe is nothing short of an art form. It takes the perfect batter, ladled out in the perfect amount onto a hot grill at the perfect temperature. A quick and careful spreading of the batter with a small wooden tool and then a smooth flip to assure the ideal brown crust. Fillings added at the optimum moment to melt the chocolate to just the right degree and expert origami folding. There you have it. Hubby took one bite and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy.

 

the crepe master

the crepe master

 

This market just absolutely blew my mind. If I lived here, I could go crazy eating my way from one end to the other. It would take me forever, but God, I’d welcome the challenge. It was just exceptional. There’s nothing else I can say.

Seeing as how we were in the midst of sightseeing and had no way to keep things preserved until we returned to the apartment at an unspecified later time, we refrained from buying anything. Geez, it was hard, but probably smart. I could have gone broke there.

After a spin around la Tour Eiffel, we stopped into a cafe for a warm-up. Unable to resist the thought of Patrick’s earlier treat, I ordered a cafe au lait and a crepe of my own spread with Nutella. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nutella, I pity you. Get with the program. Immediately. It’s a crack-addictive chocolate hazelnut spread the consistency of peanut butter, a welcome addition to ice cream, pancakes, crackers, fruit – you name it. When I was pregnant, I enjoyed thick spoonfuls of it on cinnamon graham crackers. When it’s spread onto something warm, it melts ever so slightly into near-orgasmic perfection. Ah….

Baby started getting cranky, so we grabbed a taxi back to the apartment for a little downloading. After some laundry and unwinding, hubby took off to a nearby tabac/bar to watch some of the Six Nations rugby matches while baby and I took a brief nap. Hubby returned to the apartment an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of pink-blushed roses for me as a Valentine’s Day gift. What a guy! In testament to the French attention to detail, the roses were wrapped in pink tissue and thick white paper, tied with some raffia with a business card and a bonus orchid tucked in. Lovely! Hubby said he even had a conversation in the tabac about the bouquet, the other men commenting on the high quality of the product. Bonus points for hubby. Just what every woman wants to see on Valentine’s Day – the man she loves bearing flowers! 

For dinner, we decided to get dressed up for a nice meal out. Not that every other meal we’ve had thus far hasn’t been nice as well, but this being Valentine’s Day and all calls for something extra-special. Venturing out in new directions, we wandered up to the Bastille roundabout and ended up in the Hotel Bastille. It looked like a hopping, busy place from the exterior, but it wasn’t until we’d gotten inside and ordered a drink that we realized it really wasn’t a restaurant at all. The only few plates we saw customers enjoying were actually desserts and when the tab arrived, we discovered the server had talked us into about $40 worth of drinks (one round, mind you – a jumbo-sized beer for hubby and a nice-but-not-THAT-nice glass of red wine for me). Yikes. We devoured every single olive in the complementary nibbler and most of the peanuts to try to get our money’s worth. Oh well, the ambiance was good and we wrote it off as a special occasion treat, then continued on in search of dinner.

The Bastille area has been busy during the week, but tonight it was positively thronged with a party crowd. Mohawked young men smoking in small groups on the sidewalks, stylish men and women on their way to clubs, and tourists seeking hotspots. Finding the mainstream establishments a little bit too trendy for our taste, we ventured off the beaten path a little bit to find something quieter and came across Cafe Vosges – a smallish diner-style establishment that looked friendly and inviting. 

Our waiter was a kind, patient young man who took in our fractured French in stride and made us feel at ease. The French menu didn’t offer much we were familiar with, but I recognized the term “entrecote” as steak. Seeing as how all I’d had to eat today was a croissant at breakfast and some Nutella crepes for lunch, I was ready for some real sustenance. Hubby followed suit and ordered the same. The waiter took our request and we went along with his suggestions, not realizing we’d just asked for our steaks rare.

The meat arrived not just rare, but bloody. Not fans, hubby and I stumbled our way through asking the nice waiter to take the steaks back and have the chef cook them a little more, which he did in a most gracious way. I didn’t know how hungry I actually was until the food came; I devoured my salad and half of hubby’s fries, then pounced on the steak once it came back, cooked just right second time around. 

Baby soon decided he’d had enough of being cooped up in the stroller and started in on his high-pitched squeals, so we tipped the waiter big and high-tailed back to the apartment, where we look forward to baths and an evening of relaxation. It’s going to be hard to top this Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day a la Francais

Oh my goodness, where to begin… let’s see. Breakfast the past few days has consisted of croissants and coffee – darn near the most perfect culinary combination ever invented.

Today is Valentine’s Day and hubby and I decided we would commemorate the occasion with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When in Paris… we took the Metro from Bastille to the Champs Elysees, walked down to L’Arc de Triomphe, then hoofed it over to the tower itself. On the way, we came across what has to be without a doubt the most amazing street market I have ever witnessed. To be sure, it was the mother of all farmers’ markets.

This market was all enclosed by one long narrow tent set-up and stretched on for nearly 8 blocks nonstop. It was stand after stand of the most beautiful offerings I’ve ever seen – everything from made-on-the-spot steaming cauldrons of paella to seafood, flowers, produce and even the occasional non-food items such as shirts and jewelry. Every single item was absolutely beautiful and laid out in displays of the utmost precision.

The French are obsessed with aesthetics, and this market was a perfect example. It’s not good enough to have some great produce mixed in with some so-so produce at the bottom of the bag. For example, you know how in American supermarkets you can buy a container of strawberries and at the bottom of every container you’ll find several berries that are starting to mold or are just not that ripe? Not so here. You can rest assured that every single berry in the bunch will be perfectly ripe, juicy and delicious. No waste whatsoever. It’s like that with every single thing you might want to buy, you’ll know it’s all of superior quality and freshness right down to the very last bite.

 

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

seafood vendor at the awesome street market

produce at the street market

produce at the street market

 

 

Hubby ordered a chocolat noir crepe from a made-to-order crepe stand. The crepe master manning the grills was an older gentleman who looked like he’d been creating these lovely treats his entire life and had the technique down to a science. Making the perfect crepe is nothing short of an art form. It takes the perfect batter, ladled out in the perfect amount onto a hot grill at the perfect temperature. A quick and careful spreading of the batter with a small wooden tool and then a smooth flip to assure the ideal brown crust. Fillings added at the optimum moment to melt the chocolate to just the right degree and expert origami folding. There you have it. Hubby took one bite and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head in sheer ecstasy.

 

the crepe master

the crepe master

 

This market just absolutely blew my mind. If I lived here, I could go crazy eating my way from one end to the other. It would take me forever, but God, I’d welcome the challenge. It was just exceptional. There’s nothing else I can say.

Seeing as how we were in the midst of sightseeing and had no way to keep things preserved until we returned to the apartment at an unspecified later time, we refrained from buying anything. Geez, it was hard, but probably smart. I could have gone broke there.

After a spin around la Tour Eiffel, we stopped into a cafe for a warm-up. Unable to resist the thought of Patrick’s earlier treat, I ordered a cafe au lait and a crepe of my own spread with Nutella. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nutella, I pity you. Get with the program. Immediately. It’s a crack-addictive chocolate hazelnut spread the consistency of peanut butter, a welcome addition to ice cream, pancakes, crackers, fruit – you name it. When I was pregnant, I enjoyed thick spoonfuls of it on cinnamon graham crackers. When it’s spread onto something warm, it melts ever so slightly into near-orgasmic perfection. Ah….

Baby started getting cranky, so we grabbed a taxi back to the apartment for a little downloading. After some laundry and unwinding, hubby took off to a nearby tabac/bar to watch some of the Six Nations rugby matches while baby and I took a brief nap. Hubby returned to the apartment an hour later with a beautiful bouquet of pink-blushed roses for me as a Valentine’s Day gift. What a guy! In testament to the French attention to detail, the roses were wrapped in pink tissue and thick white paper, tied with some raffia with a business card and a bonus orchid tucked in. Lovely! Hubby said he even had a conversation in the tabac about the bouquet, the other men commenting on the high quality of the product. Bonus points for hubby. Just what every woman wants to see on Valentine’s Day – the man she loves bearing flowers! 

For dinner, we decided to get dressed up for a nice meal out. Not that every other meal we’ve had thus far hasn’t been nice as well, but this being Valentine’s Day and all calls for something extra-special. Venturing out in new directions, we wandered up to the Bastille roundabout and ended up in the Hotel Bastille. It looked like a hopping, busy place from the exterior, but it wasn’t until we’d gotten inside and ordered a drink that we realized it really wasn’t a restaurant at all. The only few plates we saw customers enjoying were actually desserts and when the tab arrived, we discovered the server had talked us into about $40 worth of drinks (one round, mind you – a jumbo-sized beer for hubby and a nice-but-not-THAT-nice glass of red wine for me). Yikes. We devoured every single olive in the complementary nibbler and most of the peanuts to try to get our money’s worth. Oh well, the ambiance was good and we wrote it off as a special occasion treat, then continued on in search of dinner.

The Bastille area has been busy during the week, but tonight it was positively thronged with a party crowd. Mohawked young men smoking in small groups on the sidewalks, stylish men and women on their way to clubs, and tourists seeking hotspots. Finding the mainstream establishments a little bit too trendy for our taste, we ventured off the beaten path a little bit to find something quieter and came across Cafe Vosges – a smallish diner-style establishment that looked friendly and inviting. 

Our waiter was a kind, patient young man who took in our fractured French in stride and made us feel at ease. The French menu didn’t offer much we were familiar with, but I recognized the term “entrecote” as steak. Seeing as how all I’d had to eat today was a croissant at breakfast and some Nutella crepes for lunch, I was ready for some real sustenance. Hubby followed suit and ordered the same. The waiter took our request and we went along with his suggestions, not realizing we’d just asked for our steaks rare.

The meat arrived not just rare, but bloody. Not fans, hubby and I stumbled our way through asking the nice waiter to take the steaks back and have the chef cook them a little more, which he did in a most gracious way. I didn’t know how hungry I actually was until the food came; I devoured my salad and half of hubby’s fries, then pounced on the steak once it came back, cooked just right second time around. 

Baby soon decided he’d had enough of being cooped up in the stroller and started in on his high-pitched squeals, so we tipped the waiter big and high-tailed back to the apartment, where we look forward to baths and an evening of relaxation. It’s going to be hard to top this Valentine’s Day.

Viva la France

My first 24 hours in Paris have been fairly great, but only after an auspicious start, I must admit. 

Monday night, I was packing and preparing for my flight from Cork to Paris the next morning when we got word on the radio – a serious storm was quickly approaching northern France and all Paris airports were to be closed from 8 p.m. that night until 10 a.m. the next morning. My flight wasn’t due to leave Cork until 10:50 a.m., arriving in Paris at 1:35 p.m. local time, but I was nervous. What if the flights were off schedule, or worse, cancelled? What if we couldn’t get there on Tuesday at all? Hubby was due to be traveling on business Wednesday through Friday and would not have been able to pick us up if we were delayed a day. I’m a worrier, what can I say?

Well, I’m thrilled to report that all’s well that ends well. The airports reopened; my flight from Cork to Paris was only delayed about 15 minutes; and short of a couple sorta terrifying air pockets, we arrived safe, sound and pretty much on time.

Traveling solo with an infant gets a little tricky, and Paris is not proving to be very baby-friendly. Baby did fantastic getting through Cork airport and we navigated the flight just fine, in spite of my somehow having forgotten to pack baby wipes and/or a pacifier in the bag. (What was I thinking?) However, once we landed in Paris, it was a whole other story. For starters, I found out that the stroller we’d checked in Cork as we boarded the plane would not be returned to me at the gate; instead, I’d have to schlep the baby all the way through to baggage claim in his carrier, along with a purse, a backpack and a diaper bag. 

Charles de Gaulle airport is, as my husband would say, one big fuck-off place. With clear covered tunnels criss-crossing in never-ending directions, I felt like I was stuck in a giant human hamster cage. So there I am, loaded down like a pack mule, inching my way through the what feels like a miles-long line at the passport inspection. Several folks smiled politely at my sleeping son as we crept along a few steps at a time, but it was two young French girls directly behind me who really stepped up and came to my rescue. When they urged me to cut to the front of the line, I was hesitant, not wanting to violate any unspoken French rules of etiquette right off the bat. But they insisted, one of them grabbed the baby carrier and starting plowing her way through the queue with me trailing behind. She deposited me at the front of the line, smiled politely and returned to her place with me spouting “merci” after her like I had Tourette’s. 

From there, passports duly stamped, we were on to the baggage claim where, lo and behold, the stroller was there waiting. Having had to bring along a month’s worth of clothes, etc. for me and the baby on this trip, I think I did extremely well to limit my packing to one small suitcase for him and one good-sized rolling bag for me. Silly me, I had expected hubby would be there to meet us at the bag claim and help with the suitcases. Nope. We would have to traverse yet another long hall first to meet him in the arrivals area. Now picture me, trying to push a stroller forward with one hand and drag a loaded trolley cart behind me with the other. This is where the stereotypical French rudeness really became apparent – not one person took pity and offered to help me, even the guards and airport employees who flat out watched me struggle along. The passengers practically cursed me and ran me over in their haste to get by as either one or the other of my vehicles veered off course toward a wall every few feet.

By the time I managed to get out to the arrivals hall and hubby came running up, I had worked up a sweat and was so frustrated I burst into tears. After a few minutes of calming down, we were on to the next part of the adventure – the Metro. If Charles de Gaulle airport is a hamster cage, the Metro is a labyrinth series of mouse tunnels. 

The Metro is really a cool thing in concept, but with a baby, c’est impossible. I have no idea how people in wheelchairs get around on it. Maybe they just don’t. There seem to be hardly any elevators, and the ticket-controlled entries and exits are so narrow, our stroller wouldn’t fit through several of them. More than once, we resorted to taking the carseat off the stroller, collapsing the stroller down and carrying each through on its own. Yikes. Not to mention there are about a million stairs up and down to deal with as well. 

One other point I’d like to make about the Metro – it is prime property for busking. Every time I’ve been on it in the past 24 hours, I’ve been treated to live musical performances. The first was a young gent with an accordion, next came a surprisingly good string performance of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” worthy of a MUCH nicer venue than the Metro tunnel, and then finally a dreadlocked guy cranking out an acoustic version of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” in a heavy French accent. I would have given him a few euros for style points alone if I’d had any change on me. 

Anyway, we finally arrived at Gare du Nord, where we said fuck this nonsense and smartly grabbed a taxi to the apartment from there. Our digs for the next two weeks are just off the Place de Bastille, one of the oldest and most historic areas in the city, now a bustling area full of shops, cafes and an ultra-modern opera house. The Bastille itself perches sedately at the center of a huge roundabout with streets shooting off in all directions. 

The apartment itself is dollhouse TINY, but in pristine condition and decorated very nicely. We have a small sitting room, one bedroom, a miniature kitchen, a bathroom and a loft sleeping area. The furnishings are quality and the windows and ceilings are tall, letting in a surprising amount of light. Exposed wood beams on the ceiling give the whole place a rustic feel. It’s a cozy little home as opposed to the antiseptic style of most hotel rooms. The two flights of rickety stairs we have to climb to get in are going to kill me, or give me buns of steel. Which is actually a good thing to offset the amount of fattening food I plan to consume over the next two weeks. 

So for my first meal in Paris, I wanted something authentically French, but nothing formal or stuffy. A nice bistro sounded just right, and Lord knows there are plenty to choose from! We first took a stroll around the Rue de Saint-Antoine, taking in all that the avenue has to offer. My mouth watered as we passed food stand after food stand, each offering its own specialty – fabulous breads and pastries, glowing fruits and vegetables, cold cuts and meats, crepes with all sorts of sweet and savory fillings, sushi, Chinese food, cheeses like you’ve never seen, and gorgeous chickens spinning on a large rotisserie, their glistening juices falling to flavor a bed of peeled potatoes roasting just underneath. I wanted to eat everything I saw. 

We settled on a quaint little cafe called Le Rempart for dinner. The owner was good to accommodate us with the stroller and the menu offered casual eats such as salads, a variety of croque sandwiches and a few plated entrees. Hubby ordered a beer, and I a glass of the house red wine, eager to try out my rusty French. To me, it’s always a relief to receive exactly what I intended to get when ordering in a foreign language. I’m always nervous that I’m not pronouncing something correctly and will end up with a plate of brains or liver instead of the chocolate cake I wanted. 

For my supper, I opted for a quiche Parisienne chalkboard special and hubby got a croque Italianne sandwich, both with green salads. The meals were simply prepared and presented, nothing flashy or trendy, just good quality ingredients cooked simply and well. My quiche was studded with tomato slices and bits of savory ham, and the salad was just green lettuce with a few more tomato slices and a splash of tangy creamy dressing. I realized as I was eating it that I hadn’t had a salad in about a week and really missed it! Hubby’s sandwich was an open-faced delight of the same flavorful country ham, fresh mozzarella, tomato and a sprinkling of herbes de provence on a generous slice of baguette. 

Not ready to call it a night just yet, we ducked into another cafe for another drink. I might have mumbled a little, but the server couldn’t understand my request for another glass of wine, which immediately shook my confidence. I got flustered and pussed out, letting hubby take it from there and order for me, as he seemed to be having better luck getting his point across. 

After a sound sleep, I awoke this morning to a fantastically sunny day, thrilled to be in Paris! It’s still cold, but the sun more than makes up for it. Hubby had an unexpected free day due to a travel scheduling glitch, and we decided to take a long walk. I had my heart set on a pan au chocolat, but since it was nearly 11 a.m. by the time I got the baby fed, both of us dressed and ready to go, I worried we might have missed our breakfast window at most cafes and be well into the lunch service. Fortunately, I needed have given it a second thought.

A small patisserie/boulangerie (that’s a pastry/bread bakery for the non-French readers) called Miss Manon suited me to a tee. A glimpse through the window of row upon row of the most delectable pastries imaginable beckoned us inside, and we were glad they did. A couple of friendly young ladies behind the counter took our order (understanding me perfectly, thank God!), served us and made over the baby. I felt right at home. The decor was warm and simple and the pan au chocolat was a little bite of heaven – flaky pastry crust that shattered with each bite to reveal tender layers beneath and parallel tracks of deep dark chocolate running through. Washed down with a cafe au lait, I could eat this every morning for the rest of my life and be totally happy. I hope to come back here for lunch and try some of their sandwiches, or at the very least, sample a few more of the tempting pastries on display. The baguettes looked magnificent, too, jutting out of their baskets like fragrant missiles of goodness. Yum, yum, and yum.

We continued our walk down to the Seine and across to the Ile St. Louis, looping up around Notre Dame, across into the Latin Quarter, cutting over again to the Louvre and making a pit stop into another cafe by the Palais Royale for a warm-up (espresso for hubby and a hot chocolate for me). Our feet growing tired by this time and the baby sleeping soundly in his stroller, we wrestled our way back through the Metro to the apartment for a well-earned rest. 

Now, what to have for dinner tonight??? So much to eat, so little time.