Ghentacular

This was my second visit to Ghent, a town I thought would be nice to retire in a decade ago when I was last here. Perhaps I had a different view of what retirement entailed as a younger one as the city seems to have become a lot busier in the 21st century. Its charm is still readily apparent; the streets bustle with bicyclists of all ages, sleek trams and compact cars. We saw a young woman dressed in boots and a skirt rolling her suitcase along the cobblestone street as she biked around a corner with one hand on her handlebars. I can only think of one city where such a feat is possible, and that city is Ghentacular!

GENERAL TIPS:
We stayed at the quaint Onderland Logis (Rabotstraat 62, Tel: +32 9 228 85 38; www.onderland.be/onderland/index_nl.html), located in a renovated 19th-century coach house owned by a family that lives in another wing of the expansive property. Formerly, they had an art gallery here so the only signage you will see on Rabotstraat says “Onderland Galerie.” Knock at the heavy, unmarked door here and wait for someone to open – don’t worry, you are at the right place! For this reason, it is important that you phone ahead to inform Onderland of roughly what time you will be arriving. They are in a quieter part of town but only a 10-minute walk from the main canals and stretches of good restaurants. The family also maintains a property in the Ardennes, a region in southeastern Belgium rich in beer culture.

We walked from Gent-Sint-Pieters train station to Onderland, which took 20 minutes of map-checking and meandering. On the way back to the station, we took De Lijn tram line #1 as the stop is across the street from the lodge. There is a ticket machine at the stop so you can buy your fare then. We’ve read that if a stop has a ticket machine, the conductor will not sell you a ticket so be aware!

Chris being cheesy on Werregarenstraat

Stroll through Werregarenstraat, the famed alley of legal graffiti with an ever-changing cast of characters. On our visit, we saw Optimus Prime! Styles vary but subject matter veers more towards tame and cutesy. A number of well-known wielders of spray cans have multiple works in the city so a fun way to see the city is to hunt for works by specific artists.

Take sunset photos on the canals with no flash. Even if it’s overcast, the last light of day often peeks through the clouds so you can easily take this sort of photo:

We unfortunately didn’t have time to do this, but on my last visit, I climbed up probably every cathedral tower that it was possible to climb as it was warm and I needed to work off several cauldrons of moule frites. Try to time your ascent on the hours that the church carillon is being played as you may be able to see the professional behind the chunky keys at work. The batons, as they are sometimes called, are depressed by fists instead of fingers, which makes live carillon performances interesting to watch as well as hear.

SHOPS

Chris marveling at beer

Melanie’s World (Corduwaniersstraat 7, Tel: +32 498 102 633) – “I know my beers,” proclaimed who we assume is Melanie. At the time, Chris was staring with his mouth agape at her selection of his favorite beverage. The world of Melanie is indeed a fascinating one filled with items such as Singaporean sesame oil, nasi goreng mix, Skyflakes (the Filipino version of saltines), Indian cinnamon bark and a top-notch selection of beer. On the evening we went, she was pouring an interesting red blend from South Africa which we sipped while chatting with her weathered, modern-day Rembrandt-looking partner. The next day, he nodded to us from his bicycle as we passed each other on Groentenmarkt – always nice to be recognized!

We were on Groentenmarkt to stop by Yves Tierenteyn-Verlent (Groentenmarkt 9, across from the outdoor green market) for a Very Important Mustard Mission. The famed condiment is made on the premises from a centuries-old recipe and thus we had to buy a bottle. Stupidly, we bought the second smallest container, a mere 4 ounces! Perhaps one fine day there will be a Ghent-Brooklyn Mustard Tunnel a la the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel: idlewords.com/2007/04/the_alameda-weehawken_burrito_tunnel.htm. For now, we will savor the supply we have and attempt to recreate the secret recipe, which is a combination of stone-ground brown and white mustard seeds with salt and vinegar.

Blondeel Lederwaren (Donkersteeg 17, tel: +32 9/2333005), across from Gwenola, a cute place where we lunched on Brittany-style crepes, was where Chris bought his man bag by the curiously named German brand, Aunts and Uncles. This was the only store we saw throughout Europe with a financially and fashionably palatable selection of masculine carry-alls. They carry a wide-range of luggage and handbags for both sexes and the enthusiastic, knowledgeable girl working there also added to the experience.

Changing of the purses while enjoying Gruut beer

Not far from the graffiti on Werregarenstraat is Hoogpoort, which has a number of good boutiques. The Skunkfunk purse that Chris bought for me at Cream (Hoogpoort 9, tel: +32 9 224 0085) has been complimented the world over and is the perfect size for me as it comfortably fits my cell phone, wallet, digital camera and datebook. The men’s section unfortunately suffered from Carhartt overload; when we were there, it was literally the only brand they carried. But across the street there was an outlet with more brands and significantly slashed prices to boot.

Kaas Mekka (Koestraat 9, tel: +32 9 225 83 66) was the best cheese shop we found in Ghent.

Herve Cheese - open this wrapping at your own nasal risk

We noticed that outside of Brussels, most Belgians were more willing to speak English than French so we were able to easily converse with the cheesemonger here and appreciated her spot-on recommendations. If you’re feeling brave, try Herve, which we had sampled earlier in Bruges. This was one of the AOC Belgian cheeses we tried – let’s just say that it raised the adjective “gamey” to new heights.

BARS/RESTAURANTS
“What language do you speak?” asked our bemused Turkish waiter after Chris placed his order in an eager stream of French, German and English. After weeks of eating purely continental European food, we were dying for something different. We wandered to Oudburg (10 minutes’ walk from Onderland) where we found Ankara (Oudburg 44, tel: +32 9 225 78 18). Oudburg had a number of non-European restaurants on it, including a Mexican cantina and a Moroccan place. Of the many things we ordered, our favorite was the moussaka.

Green curry with tofu

We thought we were true travel geniuses when we came across Le Baan Thai (Corduwaniersstraat 57, tel: +32 9/2332141) down an alleyway and across a beautiful courtyard, but then we saw the Michelin stickers on the window and accepted the truth that others knew about it before us. I guess only restaurateurs with great confidence in their product can be located where there is little foot traffic. However, Ghent is the sort of city where you can venture down almost any alleyway and find something of interest. We had dinner at Le Baan Thai, which was completely full when we arrived but the hostess was somehow able to seat us quickly. The food was full-flavored and spicy; we were thankful for the liter-sized expensive bottle of water our waitress set down. Another reason to go here is to observe the endlessly entertaining, spritely waiter who sashayed between the tables and presented a wine bottle as if it was the Holy Grail. Dinner theater!

Outside Huize Colette

It wouldn’t be a trip to Belgium without chocolate. Like Johnny Depp in “Chocolat”, my favorite is hot chocolate and Huize Colette (Belfortstraat 6) makes a lip-smacking cup of the rich stuff. We double-indulged and got a mug of hot chocolate with Maltesers melted therein. They have a number of different types of chocolate that you can order and also offer breakfast and pastry items, some made with Tierenteyn mustard. If you can read Dutch, this is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon as vintage books and current magazines line the walls.

One fierce beer coaster!

The industrial chic Gruuthuis (Grote Huidevettershoek 10, tel: +32 9 233 68 21) was opened a year ago and serves mighty tasty brews made from a blend of spices and plants instead of hops, or gruut. Before hops were discovered as a key beer-making ingredient, gruut was a commodity that made the families who controlled the market extremely rich. Bruges’ beauty is due to the wealth of the burghers who made their home there. Gruuthuis seems to be in an up and coming part of the city where matte metal siding blends in with traditional stone Flemish architecture. There aren’t as many shops here as of yet so there’s less traffic, making this part of town a great area to bike around when the weather is good.

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Best of Both Worlds Part II: Belgian Beer Yes!, Belgian Cheese…um…no thanks!

After a horrendous day trying to get from the south of France to Brussels with the entire French rail system threatening to strike, I gladly excepted when my friend Katharina offered me a beer upon our arrival.  The first beer in Belgium was to be the Trappist brewed Westmalle Tripel (tawny yellow-colored blond ale with a rich, complex flavor, known by beer aficionados as the beer that sets the standard for all other beers of this style). This was a good sign.  Finally a civilized country!

Elsen Cheese Shop in Leuven- a great place for fine cheese!

Unfortunately we were to find that the state of the fermented curd in Belgium was not nearly in the same league as the beer.  One could write an interesting anthropological study on why the art of beer brewing found its apex in Flanders while cheese making remained firmly second rate compared to what was to be found an hour away in France.  Upon observing cheese vendors we visited in the city markets of Ghent, Brussels, Leuven and Bruges, we deduced that Belgians clearly love cheese, but it just doesn’t matter if it’s Belgian.  We even stumbled upon some very fine cheese shops (Kaas Mekka in Ghent and Kaas Elmbach in Leuven), which had French, Dutch, Italian and English cheese of every description but only one or two Belgian cheeses.  As the knowledgeable cheesemonger who assisted us at Kaas Elmbach explained, there just isn’t a lot of fine cheese being made in Belgium.

The beer menu at Cambrius in Bruges - food is on a dinky sheet of paper

Resigned to this fact, we wisely focused on the beer, of which there were more than enough fine examples of, thank you very much!  Oftentimes the biggest “problem” when it came to choosing a beer was picking just one or two from a staggeringly large list of options.  At the “specialist” beer bars we visited it was not uncommon to have a list of beery selections 400 strong!  Here are some generalizations I observed on our whistle-stop tour of Beer-Land:

Belgians categorize beer into three simple groups based upon color: Blond, Brown and Amber.  Simple right?  Except that these categories tell us virtually nothing about what the beer will taste like!  Due to the esoteric nature of Belgian brewing, trying to pin Belgian beers into styles can be tricky at best.  Better to sample and decide for yourself what you enjoy.

Unlike in America where often the best beer is found on draft, Belgians specialize in bottled beer.  Good bars and restaurants will always have a solid list of excellent bottled selections but more often than not have a lackluster selection of draft beers.  Bright exceptions to this rule are out there of course, like the simply amazing glass of Rodenbach 2008 Vintage on draft we drank at the highly recommend bar ‘t Poatersgat in Bruges.

Trappist beer is available almost everywhere in the country and is a good “safe” option if you are unsure what to order.  One exciting discovery was that many places had vintage bottles of particularly age worthy Trappist beers such as Chimay Blue or Rochefort 12 dating back to the early ‘90s.

Interestingly enough, many of the small Belgian microbrews we are used to seeing in New York were not widely available in their home country.  Brasserie de la Senne, for example, an excellent Brussels microbrewery that is almost always in stock at Wholefoods on the Bowery in Manhattan, was a rare find even in Brussels.  Sadly, the industrial beers of Inbev enjoy a much wider distribution than the small breweries even in their home country.

Happily, many of the bottled beers that I did often enjoy in the States tasted even better in Belgium.  A bottle of Duchesse de Bourgogne we sampled in Bruges was decidedly fresher with a vibrancy it often lacks in the States.  Was it just the euphoria of being there or was there an actually difference in quality?  Hard to say definitively, but I suspect that beers held in high regard in their home territory are simply consumed more quickly and hence are simply fresher.

Sadly without a car, getting to the smaller towns and villages famous for beer in Belgium is difficult.  Train stations in bigger cities often seem to be located very far from the interesting areas of cities making even a day trip by train to smaller towns a arduous process.  If you are planning a trip to Belgium and will visiting the three most popular cities of Brussels, Ghent and Bruges, however here are a few suggestions:

Mea Culpa, the "house beer" of Beer Mania

Biermania (174-176 Chausse de Wavre, Brussels) As the name implies, Amir the proprietor of Biermania has a composed yet extremely fanatical love of beer.  Biermania is a bottle shop with a tremendous selection spanning all of Belgium, including many vintage bottles. The best feature of the shop however is that you can drink any bottle in stock in the small café set up in the back of the shop!  Belgian Frites are available upon request and Amir even brews his own beer, a wonderful and unusual blond ale called Mea Culpa.

Exploring cobwebbed Cantillon

Cantillon Brewery (56 rue Gheude, Brussels) atmosphere, tradition and cobwebs are the three words that spring to mind upon touring the Cantillon brewery which is tucked into a quiet street west of the center of the city.  This easily accessible gem of brewing history is the best place to sample the most classic style of beer made in Belgium, Gueze.  A trip to Cantillon involves a self-lead tour of the brewery, in which one wanders through what could be described a functioning museum of beer making.  Two complimentary samples at the end of the tour included.

The Best Beer Glass in Belgium!

De Garre (De Garre 1, Bruges) I walked past the sliver of an alleyway in which this Bruges institution hides twice before slipping past the touristy bramble of lace and candy shops that overflow onto the main street and up the stairs to De Garre.  Sitting at the old wooden tables and listening to the classical music feels like you have stepped into a noble mans drinking hall from the 19th century.  There is a great selection of local beers in bottle as well as a small, simple selection of snacks. The house beer however is a must, a dangerously drinkable triple poured into the coolest custom beer glass in Belgium, and comes with a complimentary bowl of the rubbery stuff that passes for cheese here in Belgium.

‘t Poatersgat (Vlamingstraat 82, Bruges)  This was easily the best bar we visited while in Bruges, but guessing from other reviews that the atmosphere was loud and smoky we got there at just the right time, around 6pm on a weekday.   There was barely a soul there and we could enjoy a beer or three in peace and quiet.  The best aspect about their impressive beer list is that they actually describe each beer, making the decision a bit less mysterious than it often can be…

Enter and discover a world of flavor...

Melanie’s World (Corduwaniersstraat 7, Ghent)  Wandering through the narrow streets of Patershol district in Ghent, seek out this wonderful little shop packed to the gills with a bewildering selection of international groceries, wine and beer.   If you were wondering where to buy channa dal, oxacan mole paste, glutinous rice flour and hard to find Belgian microbrews in one go than you have come to the right place.  Melanie the proprietor is a kind, welcoming women and an expert on Belgian beer.

Waterhuis an der Bierkant (Groetenmarkt 9, Ghent) This old beer house is hard to miss, located on the edge of the main square.  Very loud and smoky downstairs, but we managed to find peace and quiet (and sneak in some imported cheese!) on the second floor.  Fantastic selection of local beers.

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French Vignettes

All right, so we’re officially a continent behind now. But we’re staying put in San Francisco for the next week and a half, which will hopefully give us time to catch up on O&A. Thanks for your patience!

Why choose one dessert when you can have all four on the menu? This was our last course at the delightful La Crémaillère in La Val

Don’t hunt for guidebook recommended restaurants – we’ve found several delicious patisseries and restaurants just by stopping in small towns and walking around. Some of these had already been given the trifecta of Routard, Michelin and Lonely Planet stamps of approval, but they were finds to us and if we had made a point of hunting down specific places, it would have been a lot more stressful and we wouldn’t have enjoyed the atmospheric narrow roads nearly as much. Rest assured that most small towns will have at least one “Restaurant Gastronomique” or fine-dining establishment tucked away somewhere.

“Singapore, I love you” – Really? This stick-made declaration greets anyone who looks over the bridge spanning the awesome Gorges de Verdon, which plummets to a jaw-dropping 700 meters in parts. Lord knows how long it’s been there or what inspired some industrious Lion City lover to create it. The fastest hike down takes six hours so perhaps what the maker of this homage did to quickly get down was paraglide – this area happens to be home to the tallest paragliding spot in Europe so if you’ve got it in you, come here to get your G-force-ready thrills.

Breakfast in Cavaillon – Coffee in France is surprisingly difficult to find and quite expensive if you like milk with your java – it really made us miss Italy! But the best cups we had were at a bar/tabac in Cavaillon, Bar Tabac de la Mairie (11 pl Aimé Boussot), which was conveniently located on the same block as a wonderful patisserie, L’etoile du Delice (57 Place Castil-Blaze, tel: +33 04 90 78 07 51), and an excellent cheese shop, Fromagerie des Alpes (67 Rue Raspail, tel: +33 04 90 71 03 69). L’etoile had the best croissants we’d ever had, both of the plain and almond variety, and at the cheese shop, we made fast friends with the life-long mongers working there. After only two visits, they gave us fresh butter for free – the amount they gave us would have served us for 10 breakfasts!

O&A’s Favorite Towns in Provence

Entrance to Olivier Roche's domain, a cineaste's dream

Bonnieux – Our first stop after the narrow, winding canyon road from the Haut Provence, Bonnieux sits perched upon the tallest hill in the area and affords fantastic views of the surrounding country side from the court-yard of the 12th Century church that caps the town.  Take the time to wander through the town on foot and pop into Olivier Roche’s place on Rue Droite if you a film lover.  His claustrophobic shop cum abode is packed to the gills with classic film posters and self-designed t-shirts with witty sayings that will show the world that you are a connoisseur of fine film.  If you happen to be in the area at the right time, namely the summer and into early September, Oliver holds outdoor movie screenings projected from his “gypsy caravan”.

In the gardens in La Val

La Val – Per the logic outlined in the first French vignette, we stopped in La Val because it was the first village outside a larger charmless town filled with fast food joints, large hardware stores and supermarkets. We figured that the local beau monde must crave “the old days” and when we saw a helmeted motorist driving a James-Bond-on-holiday-type convertible towards La Val one Saturday around lunch time, we knew we had to follow. The town was predictably sleepy with handfuls of children and teenagers hanging around. We had a lovely three-course lunch at La Crémaillère followed by a walk around the local garden where Chris met a new friend.

Goult after lunch - where is everyone?

Goult – If it’s your first time motoring around Provence, be prepared to be patient and allow generous amounts of time to drive seemingly short distances.  We had the good fortune to stumble upon Goult while fruitlessly searching for another town we had intended to lunch in.  There was no mention of Goult in our guide, which might be a good thing.  It’s a gem, not only from a food stand point (two charming restaurants, two butcher shops just steps away from each other, and a wonderful epicierie that has a whole line of goods packaged under their own name) but simply to wander around the labyrinthine streets is a pleasure.  Additionally, Goult is a well-placed rest stop from one of the dozen hiking paths that criss-cross the area.

Gordes – This was by far the most touristy of the places we visited, but definitely warrants the mandatory 3 euro parking fee.  Strolling (or perhaps climbing is a more accurate gerund!) around this hilltop town for an afternoon, we took in the gorgeous views and marveled at the ingenuity of Provencal construction.  To carve out comfortable buildings, steps, and streets from stone without the aid of modern construction tools is impressive and they managed to make it beautiful as well.  The food possibilities here were as plentiful as anywhere but we did not have the opportunity to try them.

Posing with melon before a room-nic complete with goodies from Fromagerie des Alpes and two pointes

Cavaillon – Is the friendly, if not particularly attractive capital of Provence, but as mentioned above, it is worth a stop as it has the best cheese shop we visited in Provence.  There is a good wine shop called Les Cinq Sens next door as well (81 Rue Raspail) and small bakery around the corner that specializes in a baguette called a pointe – a hearty whole grain bread with a satisfyingly crunchy crust.  You will recognize the pointe as the sharp ends are blacked to a crisp due to the high heat used to create its crispy exterior.  Be sure to pick up a Cavaillon melon or two to complete your perfect picnic meal.

We also visited Roussillon and Menerbes which are strongly recommended in all the guidebooks.  We found them to be fine, but not nearly as charming as the five towns above as they were overrun with busloads of tourists.  C’est la vie!

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The lamb, the leek, the pumpkin, the beer

We had the opportunity to cook in Brussels as Loic and Katharina generously let us run free in their beautiful kitchen. We decided to make our version of a Belgian dish, Carbonade, which was actually created on the fly and not even a riff on a recipe we read so apologies to any Belgians readers out there!

Dinner is served!

We were told that Carbonade (in Dutch it’s Vlaamse Stoverij or Vlaamse stoofkarbonade, in Flemish it’s Stoofvlees) is a meat and beer stew, so we took that concept and finished our grocery shopping in record time – it helps when the local supermarket has amazing beer. We served this with our take on the fennel salad we had at Ferme Auberge, which was just as good as it was in France. Local fennel helped, I’m sure – it is an EU regulation that countries of origin must be noted on all produce sold – but really all we did was cut it up and add good olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Apparently Katharina grew up disliking fennel and we converted her over the course of dinner!

The pumpkin, the chestnut, the honey from Hotel Nazionale 1896, Vernante, Italy

The name of our recipe is a salute to the Babelfish-translated menu we were presented with at Hotel Nazionale 1896 in Italy, specifically the dessert we had, “The pumpkin, the chestnut, the honey.” It was scrumptious and I wish we had room for “The milk of the milk.” Oh well, next time!

The lamb, the leek, the pumpkin, the beer

1 lb leg of lamb, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/3 lb pumpkin, peeled and cut

1 large leek, white part only, sliced

1.5 cups La Chouffe bruin (the label is in the banner above)

1 egg

3-4 T flour

Carbonade before boiling

Carbonade before boiling

Roll up your sleeves and beat together the egg and flour, then coat the chunks of lamb with this thick mixture. Heat a tablespoon of butter in a dutch oven and brown the lamb, which takes roughly 5 minutes. Remove the lamb from the pot. Add a bit more butter, then toss in the leeks and stir them around for a few minutes. Add your pumpkin pieces and the lamb and stir together before adding the beer and an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil before reducing heat to medium-low. Check the consistency of the meat in 30 minutes, it should be tender but if not, let it go for another 5-10 minutes. Add salt and pepper and serve with your choice of carb; rice worked well for us in sopping up the Carbonade sauce and giving me a much-needed Asian ingredient fix.

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Belgian Beer & French Cheese-The best of both worlds, part 1

As anyone who knows me will attest, my favorite food next to cheese is beer.  Or preferably these two marvels of fermentation served together.  Unfortunately (or perhaps from a health standpoint fortunately!) I am not of the Homer Simpson camp of cheap lager guzzling.  I would much prefer one (okay maybe two!) glasses of excellent craft beer than a six-pack of Bud or the equivalent.  Much to my chagrin, great beer in the south of France was impossible to find, while the cheese selection was fantastic.  Excluding the northern departments of Pays du Callis which from a beer lovers perspective should be included as part of Belgium anyway, beer drinkers in France must suffer the bland, mass produced lager which only redeeming quality I would say is that it is often cheaper than a glass of Coca-Cola.  Travelers to France might contend that the strong golden ale Leffe is in plentiful supply, so what’s the fuss?  Well, in terms of flavor and quality, I lump this minion of bad hangovers produced by the industry giant In-Bev, in the same camp as the Euro-lagers.  Stick to the excellent bottled mineral waters if you want something bubbly or try the local grape juice.  I’ve heard the French have been making it for some time and are quite good at it.

Part I: Cheese in Provence

We managed to survive without beer quite happily while visiting Provence, while the local cheese was outstanding.  As mentioned in our posting on Cavaillon, do try to stop at the fantastic Fromagerie des Alpes if you are visiting the area.  Weekly markets are another great place to find cheese, but be sure to seek out markets that are frequented by the locals and are not just for the tourists (the cheese at the market in Roussillon for example was not nearly as impressive as the selections in the market of Forcalquier).  Here are a few cheeses I would highly recommend seeking out:

Banon I fancy myself as a “cheese expert” i.e. I have tasted every fermented curd known to man, but sampling Banon, the soft, pungent AOC protected goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, in it’s home territory was revelatory.  We bought two different ages at from a cheese vendor in Forcalquier, one aged 10 days (which the cheesemonger proclaimed was “a Poine” or perfectly ripe) and another aged for 15 days.  What difference does five days make?  I found it to be so smelly (akin to the English cheese “Stinking Bishop”) that it was difficult to enjoy the creamy, luscious paste.  Audrey, on the other hand, loved it.  I guess I’m not as much of a conniseur as I thought!  The younger Banon was not for beginners either, but a bit tamer.  Both were great with a Dupont Cider from Normandy and chunk of country bread, but unsurprisingly, terrible with red wine.

Tomme du Brebis There are dozens of aged sheep milk cheeses available in the region ranging from light, spongy-textured wheels with a mildly sour flavor to hard, sharp cheeses that were similar to an aged pecorino.  I didn’t recognize any “famous” AOC cheeses, which made it all the more interesting to sample.  Our favorite pairing was a small dab of locally made sour cherry jam.

Salers or Cantal While not strictly from the region you will find these aged mountain cheeses (from the Auvergne and Savoy regions respectively) throughout Provence.  Salers and its similar and more common cousin Cantal are what I would call the French version of farmhouse Cheddar.  The texture is cheddar-ish, but both have a tangier, earthier flavor than their English counterpart.  Seek out the aged versions and pair with a good bottle of red Cote du Luberon.

Bleu de Sassenage is the cheese below, excellent with a rooster-ful of jam!

Blue Cheese – While Provence is not known for blue cheese, the mountainous areas to the north and west are famous for it.  Roquefort, the rich, spicy king of sheep milk blue cheeses will be on offer throughout Provence and for good reason.  It’s simply divine.  But be sure to search out other, more unusual blue cheeses while you are here, like Blue du Sassenage (a salty, buttery cows milk blue cheese) or Blue du Basque (a fudgey, mild sheep milk blue).  A good regional pairing would be melon from Cavaillon or the lavender honey ubiquitous to Provence.

Stay tuned for part 2, same onigiri time, same arancini channel.

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Dejeuner avec Catherine Deneuve

On our last day in France (October 15th), the only thing we had planned was going to lunch at Ferme Auberge Le Castelas (tel: 04 90 74 60 89, reservations necessary, if only so they know you’re coming). We had wanted to have a good meal in an off the beaten path destination as we’d have to return the car by 6pm. Apparently Catherine Deneuve has been known to helicopter here for a meal so we figured Ferme Auberge was a safe bet.

It was an exceptionally stressful morning as we spent more on train tickets to Brussels that we expected, and the direct connections were sold out so we’d have to transit in Paris and brave the strikes all the same. Later we discovered that the woman who sold us the tickets was a complete moron, something we should have been clued in to when she thought we said Boston instead of Brussels and had an itinerary on Icelandic Air all queued up for us to buy. Right.

On tenterhooks, we drove to the village of Sivergues, which was by far the smallest village we’d ever seen. It consists of perhaps two structures, neither of which looked like people lived there. Both buildings were located at the end of the only road into town, the D232.

Ferme Auberge

Chris maneuvered our rented Renault onto a hiking trail where our lunch would be waiting for us 1.5 kilometers down. We were told that once we saw the goats, we weren’t far from the entrance. I spotted a few prancing in a pasture along the trail and sure enough, Ferme Auberge’s entrance was no more than a hundred meters away.

The sound of gravel crackling underfoot announced our arrival, and as the only patrons there, we had the pick of the long wooden tables placed around a large field. Perhaps this is where Madame Deneuve sets down.

Chris gently removing the kid from our tabletop

Today, it was where pigs lunching on grass and a very excitable kid, who later jumped on our table and helped himself to some flatbread, greeted us.

In minutes, a mouth-watering spread of appetizers was laid before us: fennel salad, roasted red bell peppers, house-smoked jambon cru, and soft goat cheese with chervil and basil. All this was to be washed down with a pitcher of red sangria and local red wine. Heavenly.

Careful not to fill up before whatever largess awaited us for the main course, we ate perhaps only half of everything. The main course was 10+ grilled pork chops and perfectly roasted baby potatoes simply served on a long wooden board.

Goat cheeses, local honey and a bouquet of fresh Provencal herbs

We dug in and summoned our dessert stomachs for the jaw-droppingly gorgeous spread of goat cheeses that was plunked down before Chris – how did they know he was jonesing for some cabrio-love? The cheeses are made on the farm and aged by a local affineur. We finished with warm chocolate cake and coffee before romping around with the pigs, who were being fed day-old bread while not fleeing from a mischievous dog.

One of Ferme Auberge’s employees asked Chris, “Why did you come to the Luberon? Why not Paris, Cannes or Marseille?” Oh country mouse, if only you knew that we city mice long for a life like yours!

Making friends...to eat! Muwahaha!

Lunch including wine, sangria, dessert and coffee was 30 Euros each, and half-board there, which is breakfast and dinner, is 70 Euros per person.

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Homecooking at Petit Segries

Caveat – this was written on October 8th – we’re really behind on updates but we’ll catch up by 2011!

The lovely Petit Segries at dusk

After days of eating out, we are happy to be checked in for four nights to Petit Segries, a gite (French for self-catering accommodation. They are very popular across the country and there is a huge guide on gites published in French annually, plus a webiste) in Moustiers de St. Marie, considered one of the most charming towns in Provence, although we’ve driven through countless others vying for the title. Unfortunately the market in Moustiers de St. Marie, a 10-minute drive from Petit Segries, was long over so the only produce available to us was in the mini supermarket in town. I wistfully reflected on the beautiful eggplants, mushrooms and zucchinis with blossoms still attached that we’d seen at the market in Bandol only this morning. Le sigh.

I whipped up an old standby on the dregs of the mini-marche’s offerings, which we enjoyed with a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, Provencal olives and St. Marcellin, followed by the obligatory cheese course of Brebis de Montagne with lavender honey and plum confiture made by the proprietors of Petit Segries.

Galette a Supermarche Generale

¾-1 pound of potatoes – we used 6 rose potatoes, cut lengthwise into quarter-inch slices

2 medium sized carrots, peeled and diced

1 leek, white part only, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces

1 clove of garlic, minced

½ a medium red onion, sliced

2 tablespoons of butter, cut into small cubes

salt and pepper to taste

lemon zest

3 eggs

2/3 c milk

Galette with one layer of potatoes and the minced vegetable filling

Preheat your oven to 375˚F. Caramelize the garlic, onions, leeks and carrots together in a tablespoon of olive oil in a hot pan – you’re on vacation, throw it all in at once! While your vegetables are cooking on medium-low heat (you may need to add a few tablespoons of water to prevent them from burning), par-boil your potato slices in a pot of water with a tablespoon of salt. This should take about 5 minutes. Beat the eggs and add in the milk while beating.

Butter a shallow tart pan and line the bottom with a single layer of potatoes. Top with your caramelized vegetables and a sprinkle of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Top with another layer of potatoes and pour your egg/milk mixture over the galette.

Galette fresh from the oven

Salt and pepper the top and dot it with the cubes of butter. Place it on the middle rack of your oven for 10-12 minutes, depending on your oven. The temperature gauge in the oven we used seemed to be off because it felt really hot in there, but we had it mostly at 100˚C, plus it also seemed to be a convection oven judging from the blasts of hot air that greeted me every time I impatiently opened the oven door. Check after 10 minutes to see if the butter has melted and browned the top and the eggs are cooked. Let the galette rest for 5 minutes after it comes out of the oven, then cut into slices and top with fresh lemon zest if you wish. Bon Appetit!

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Bouillabaisse or Bust!

On a time sensitive trip to Provence or like us, tend to move faster than the average bear? Here are our agenda for one day in the colorful, laid-back city of Marseille:

1. Admire the view and get your bearings from the central train station. You can see the beautiful basilica, Notre-Dame de la Garde, as well as orient yourself to the vista of the Marseille suburbs stretching outward into the horizon. Try to ignore the weird colonialist statues of naked African and Asian women at the bottom of the stairs. We think these are just left over from an early 20th century renovation, but if you have additional information, please let us know!

Miss Fish Monger 2010 or someone on a work-study program from Scandanavia?

2. Head straight down the stairs down to the Old Port to take in the Fish Market (a 10-15 minute walk). The hundreds of boats behind the fish vendors are more impressive perhaps than the 6 or 7 vendors offering their salty wares, but you will gain an impression for the past when the fish market was much grander. Walk along the edge of the harbor until you reach the bay and the solid towers protecting the city from invaders of the past.

3. To the left of the Old Port is the cool, interesting section of Marseille you will want to investigate with your one day. Don’t worry about the rest of the city on the right of the port, unless you have several days. To the left of the port, the city stretches up, up, up to the magnificent basilica. Depending on the timing of your visit, head up to the Basilicata first.

Just the entrée of our lunch at Le Bistrot a Vin – there was also coffee, dessert and a free glass of wine, all for 11.50 Euros!

4. Alternatively go to an amazing wine bar and Provencal restaurant first: La Bistrot au Vin. We enjoyed a gut-busting meal for 11.50 Euros each: a serious entrée of “Caviar du Aubergine” and a Goat Cheese and Tomato Tart on a healthy bed of lettuce with a glass of wine, coffee and dessert included. We ordered an appetizer – Audrey cannot resist pied a cochon –and unfortunately were too full to order dessert! We assumed every restuaruant in Marseille would offer Boublibaisse, but this was sadly not the case. You will have much better luck finding “Brochettes” of grilled meat or fish in this town. Wander around this area after lunch and take in the street scene; lots of cool boutiques, restaurants and cafes spill out onto the sidewalk.

View from Notre-Dame de la Garde

5. Assuming you went for the lunch option first, on to Notre-Dame de la Garde. This is clearly a tourist site but well worth hiking up a steep street for. After about 15-20 minutes of upward schlepping, you will reach the base of the magnificent basilica. Up a few more flights of stairs you will reach the top and a magnificent 360 degree view of the city. The basilica itself is impressive on the outside and gorgeous on the inside. Reward your climb with a sit down inside to take in this impressive tribute to God.

A nautical-themed chandelier in Notre-Dame de la Garde. The vast majority of the church’s interior ornamentation had to do with the city’s long history as a maritime hub, including beautiful models of ships and plaques bearing the names of patrons praying for the safe passage of their loved ones at sea.

6. On the way back down from the church, be sure to stop in to Creations Sacs Mary (ph: 04 91 37 14 49), a small leather goods company on the way down to the center of the city that produces all their beautiful, well-priced wares on site. The walk down to the center of town if very enjoyable, with views of Notre-Dame and cute shops on both left and right of the street. Get a snack at a patisserie or café as you march down to Rue Sylvebelle. Take a right and go along until you reach Corse Julien (about 30 minutes, if you don’t stop at any of the elegant boutiques, wine stores, or antique stores on the way!)

7. The Corse Julien is a large, laid back area encompassing food shops, bookstores and rambling community park. Mix in with Marseille families around the fountains or kill an hour or two checking out the bookstores or drinking a coffee at one of the multiple social conscientious cafes. If you are still around at dinnertime, you will find ample multi-cultural pickings in this area.

A lovely plaza in Corse Julien where groups of teenagers chatted, children played, and elderly folks read or played chess

8. Should you need to leave that night, the central train station is just a medium walk (20 minutes) from Corse Julien. If not, take in a movie or walk around the harbor before heading to dinner (left side of the port!)

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Bandol: Mostly Mourvèdre

Bandol vines with La Cadière d'Azur in the background

It turns out that we aren’t being charged a premium in the US – Bandol wines are pretty much exactly the same price at home as they are in France. Allocations are small, even on its home turf. Now is the tail end of rosé season but shopkeepers still have signs up restricting consumers to two bottles at a time of some of the more popular domaines, namely Tempier and Ott, which put Bandol on the international wine scene. But there is much more to be had than these two pillars of this small AOC, and we rolled up our sleeves to do the hard work of trying as many of these wines as possible.

Bandol soil, which is dry and stony but seemed to hold moisture well

Mourvèdre, the star of Bandol, sits squarely in the finicky camp of grapes that can still only be grown in certain areas. Happily, it hasn’t been ruined by dumbed down versions. Here, it does well in the sunny climes of Mediterranean France and also benefits from solid amounts of humidity and precipitation. Another major helping hand in Bandol is the mistral winds, which have a cooling effect on the grapes, allowing them to mature evenly. We were told by a local winemaker that better vintages have higher percentages of Mourvèdre but all the same, bottles labeled Bandol AOC only need 50% Mourvèdre and the rest can be Grenache or Cinsault.

Coming to Bandol was revelatory to both of us as Mourvèdre is spritely as grapes go – it can be made into forgettable, young Spanish reds and also figures prominently into prized wines from the Rhone. To boil it down to basic aromas – blackberry, game, baking spices, thyme are a few that have been cited by experts – would be too simplistic and certainly each wine we tried exhibited different dominant characteristics. Many vineyards still do their harvesting by hand, and thus the influence of terroir in Bandol wines is exceptionally noticeable. Here are our tasting notes from our two days in Bandol:

Domaine de Olivette 2005

Savory notes dominate the bouquet and follow through on the palate. This wine would pair well with steak. The wine shop proprietress served it to us chilled, the reason behind which she explained in French and we did our usual nod and “d’accord!” without really understanding why. One day we’ll get better at confessing “Pardon, je ne pas comprends Français…Angalis, SVP?”

Domaine de La Laidiere 2006

A robust wine that pairs well with grilled fish but cannot stand up to flavorful red meat. Stone fruit on the nose, in the mouth it’s nice and juicy.

Domaine de Jean-Pierre Gaussen 2008

70% Mourvèdre and 30% Grenache and Cinsault. Easy drinking and approachable, this medium-bodied wine was the fruitiest of the bunch we tried with a pleasing cherry finish. Lovers of California cab, matriculate to Bandol with this bottle.

Domaine du Gros’ Nore 2005

Earthy on the nose but red fruit-driven on the palate. Excellent balance. Finish is long and silky – make sure you’re sitting down or else your knees might buckle!

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The quest for Formaggi Fantastico – Italian Cheeses from Tuscany to Piedmont

While most tourists search out noble castles and museums crammed full of art on their trips to Italy, for me its all about the cheese.   Okay, maybe some fruit and vegetables occasionally, but only because one cannot live on cheese alone.  Believe me I’ve tried!

Luckily for a turophile like myself there is scarcely a scrap of Italy that is not famous for a local cheese (or at least should be).  For the novice cheese addict, the following will provide a short primer on Italian cheese roughly organized by milk type and geographic location.

Fried Bocconcini Antipasti (and other tasty treats!)

Southern Italy is home of the water buffalo and of course, mozzarella.  Almost never served on its own, mozzarella in Italy finds its way into countless antipasti, such as the bruschetta and fried balls of bocconcini (tiny mozzarella morsels) we snacked upon in the piazza of Cortona.

Central Italy is the sheep belt; from Sardinia to Umbria small rounds of cheerfully painted pecorino (black is ash or squid ink, red, tomatoes or simply olive oil are common “coatings”) have been faithfully crafted for centuries, with each village home to a specific specialty.  At our friend’s wedding in Umbria, we enjoyed Fiore Sardo (the “Flower” of Sardinia; robust, nutty, with a hint of smoke on the finish) and Formaggio di Fossa (a strange, wonderful cheese from the Marche that is wrapped in hay and buried in the ground for several months to ripen; pungent, slightly bitter and peppery, with a texture similar to wet sand).  Aged pecorino is often big on flavor, short on nuance.  The perfect accompaniment to a glass of full bodied white wine, like the Pinot Grigio “Sdricca” we enjoyed that night with dinner.

On the rocky, mountainous Atlantic coastline stretching northwards toward France, goat milk cheeses are plentiful. A culinary culture of economy, cheese in Liguria is seen more frequently as an ingredient rather featured on a cheese plate. We discovered that the famous ligurian pesto traditionally incorporates goat cheese, not Parmesan as is commonly instructed in American recipes.

Farinata con Stracchino

A trip to Liguria would not be complete without their traditional take on the melted cheese sandwich, a chickpea fritter filled with ooey-gooey cheese, Farinata con stracchino.

If you are a true cheese lover, you simply must go to Northern Italy, which, completely coincidentally of course, was our next destination.  Cows are king in the north, home to Parmesan and Grana Padano, as well as dozens and dozens of regional specialties.  In Piedmont (which I would argue is the Gastronomic capital of Italy!) sheep and goats milk cheese gets equal footing as well.  At our first stop in the wine and truffle crazy town of Alba, our gracious hosts at the Locanda del Barbaresco met us at the door with a glass of their own white wine Favorita (a grape only found in Piedmont) and a cheese plate.

Toma is the cheese in the middle.

Toma, was my favorite offering, a local specialty made from a blend of cow and goat milk and washed with a salty brine during its ripening to produce a dense, tangy, aromatic round 6 to 8 ounces in weight.  Toma is the Piedmontese word for Tomme, French cheese terminology to describe a round cheese ranging in size from a few ounces (cutely described as a “Tomino” in Italy) up to a hefty twelve pounds.   (Somewhat confusingly, another cheese called Tuma can also be found in Piedmont, which is a soft fresh cheese used for cooking.)   Accompanying the Tuma were two fresh, crumbly cheeses made of cows milk and sheep’s milk respectively and Grissini, the Turinese bread stick present at virtually every meal except breakfast in Piedmont.

The next day at lunch in Barolo, we noticed an osteria offering a Piedmontese cheese plate as a secondi, ie (the main dish) of the lunch! Have I died and gone to heaven?

12 Cheeses?! OMG!

When the plate arrived it defied all my expectations; twelve hearty wedges of local cheese concentrically framing a pool of hazelnut-black currant mostarda (a condiment common to northern Italy flecked with mustard seeds for a spicy contrast to the sweetness of the fruit).  Sadly, the Osteria couldn’t tell me the names of the cheeses, describing this masterpiece simply as a “typical, traditional cheeses from all over Piedmont”.   Years of “work” tasting as many kinds of cheese as possible unfortunately did not allow me to recognize everything, but here is partial list from mildest to strongest: #1 Murranzano  #2 Robiola di Roccoverno, #4 Raschera, #5 Taleggio, #6 Toma del Lait Brusc, #7 Grana Padana, #8 Bra, #9 Blu di Capra, #10 Testun al Barolo, #11 Saras del Fen (sorry I can’t tell you the rest, you will just have to visit Barolo and order the cheese plate!)

We discovered a source for true mountain cheese at our next stop in Vernante, a small town nestled into the Parco Nationale Alpine-Maritime famous for its Pinnochio murals.  Our extremely hospitable host Christian at the Hotel Nazionale 1896 was directing us to the start of a hiking trail in the hamlet of Palanfré, when he off handly mentioned that we would pass by a local cheese farm.  Sure enough,  right at the start of the trail was Azienda Isola, a small two building farm with a promising sign: “Vendita Formaggi”.

From the top: Robiola, Beer Washed Cheese, Aged Ricotta

Just a few minutes into the hike, a melodic ringing sound could be heard.  As we crested the first rise the source of the ringing appeared high up on mountainside, the cows of Palanfré, peacefully munching mountain grasses!  Eager to try the fruits of all that mastication, we finished the hike and entered Azienda Isola through the thick curtain of beads hanging from the doorway.  The proprietor smiled and greeted us warmly, standing proudly behind her wares.  With a bit of pigeon Italian and some French cheese terms “Lait cru?….Si!” we selected two of most interesting looking creations, an aged tome washed in the beer from Birrificio Troll down the road and an aged ricotta.  Back at the hotel with some fresh figs and a bottle of Birrificio Troll Palanfre to accompany, we dug into the cheeses.  The aged ricotta was wonderful.  Rich, smooth texture, full milky flavor with a whiff of sweet dried hay and clotted cream on the finish, I had to resist eating the whole piece right there.  The beer washed cheese was equally good and unique, a spicy pungent flavor and wet crumbly paste reminiscent of ricotta salata.  At twelve euros a kilo, these cheeses were literally a steal. Amo l’Italia!

For those of you who are as obsessed with cheese as I am, check out the technically accurate if rather dry postings on Piedmontese Cheese by Giuseppe Zeppa on The Dairy Science Info website:  http://www.dairyscience.info/cheeses-of-the-piedmont-region-of-italy.html

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