Dancers

Flamenco dancers onstage at the theater inside Sevilla’s Mercado de Triana.

The young dancer stood statuesque, in a white dress with ruffled red trim that matched her crimson lips. Her gaze penetrated the darkness. Lean and intense, her hair drawn tightly away from her face and secured with a red flamenco flower at the crown of her head, she glowed in the stage light.

With two swift stamps of her foot and writhing wrists, she started to move. Her red block-heel shoes rapped the stage floor with a force that vibrated through our seats. She clutched her skirt and swirled it, her expression a mix of pain and nostalgia, her focus within, on something we were not privy to.

With her onstage were a guitarist and a singer. They watched her closely, taking cues from her movement, accompanying the dance with swift hard strumming and impassioned, melodic lamentation. The singer counterpointed the dancer’s footwork with sharp claps, slapping the first three fingers of one hand into the palm of the other. Shouts of “Gitana!” came from behind us, encouragement to the dancer, whose expression and movement had become a story of pride and defiance.

We were in Sevilla, the heart of Andalusia, the home of flamenco.

***

Teatro

The diminutive theater lives in the heart of the market.

Earlier, deep in the halls of the Mercado de Triana, blue tiled lettering above the stalls advertised the vendor’s products: frutas y verduras, charcuteria, pescados y mariscos. But on this Monday evening, the stalls were gated and the indoor market was vacant. Only the signage and vegetal aroma betrayed the building’s day-to-day function.

We were not here to shop or eat. We were here for a demonstration of flamenco from a band of Spanish gitanos (gypsies).

In front of a stall converted into a Teatro, we met our hosts, Manuel (Manu) Santiago and MarÍa Hernández. A husband-and-wife team, by day they are social workers who represent the gypsy community in Sevilla. They are also artists, teachers, and flamenco evangelists who dress the part: he wore a luxe cherry-red velveteen jacket and she a short, fringed dress and stilettos. At a makeshift ticket stand outside the theater, a young man stapled small squares of paper into cones and filled them with gummy candies, which he handed to us with a shy smile. Manu said of the man, “He is a romantic.”

Manu spoke of the gypsy culture in Spain and the role of flamenco in their community. Gypsies have been persecuted for centuries, he said. The music reflects their struggles. “Flamenco was how they stayed connected with one another.”

He invited us to pass through the heavy velvet curtain into the intimate theater, where about 25 upholstered theater seats rose in tiers from the front of the room to the back. We took seats in the first three rows, a flower’s toss from the stage, where four crimson lacquered chairs faced us.

Manu introduced the first performer as a proud member of the gypsy community and a flamenco guitarist. The same young man who was fashioning cones outside the theater sat on one of the chairs with his instrument. He began to play, chopping at his strings and filling the small theater with swift, staccato chord progressions.

Manu Taking Questions

Manu (right) describes the gypsy culture and answers questions.

After a couple of solo arrangements, a second man entered the stage and sat on a chair next to the guitarist. Dressed in black, with a shock of black hair, his dark form framed by the bright red chair, he closed his eyes and began a mournful song. His deep voice, at times raised in a wail, resonated through the theater. The lament he expressed was palpable, the emotion raw and visceral.

Between performances, Manu expanded on the gypsy art form, emphasizing the multidimensional nature of flamenco. A range of themes convey different moods, from pain and loneliness to joy and celebration. “Music was passed down from one generation to the next through the community,” he said. To demonstrate the style differences, he and MarÍa took the stage. Manu and the other guitarist played while MarÍa belted out a gutsy song, her voice filled with bravado and pride, a clear contrast to the man’s moody performance.

On Stage

The gypsy ensemble.

Next to appear was the fierce young dancer in the white dress, who performed a couple of solo numbers before being joined onstage by a young man. The mood then changed to one of pursuit and competition, as the pair stomped and charged toward and away from each other like a bullfighter and his adversary. Ultimately, the feeling was celebratory.

To cap off the performances, we were invited to join in a flamenco-ized version of “I Did It My Way,” a fun way to wrap up the evening. We thanked our hosts and the performers, and filed out of the market.

Back in the street, we couldn’t help but stomp our own feet in a lame attempt to replicate what we had witnessed. And we were reminded of the talent and years of work it takes to make art look so effortless and beautiful.

The young dancer appeared, now in skinny jeans, trailing a roller bag. She had looked older onstage, in the lights, channeling an emotional, centuries-old cultural heritage. Now here she was, a smiling teen-ager, thrilled to have her picture taken with MarÍa.

Bob and Sebastian

Sebastian and Bob discuss important matters under the watchful gaze of a disembodied dinner guest.

Manu and MarÍa joined us for tapas at Taberna Miami, a nearby restaurant and shrine to bullfighting. We squeezed into a private side room, La Sala del Toro, and arranged ourselves around the table. Above the wainscoting of Spanish tiles, with their intricate blue and green floral designs, hung pictures of famous bullfighters and their bovine conquests. Sebastian sat at the head of the table beneath the vacant gaze of an unfortunate bull whose head was mounted on the wall.

Waiters poured glasses of inky Alcorta tempranillo while Sebastian ordered food. We started with the familiar salty-savory trio of paper-thin jamón Ibérico, salami, and sharp cheese. Next, two varieties of crispy golden croquetas with gooey interiors: mild, creamy hake that oozed in the mouth; and luscious savory oxtail, rich with lip-coating collagen.

After the finger snacks came shallow pans of shrimp confit in a garlicky olive oil laced with fiery dry Thai bird chiles — delicious with a slice of warm baguette to soak up the juices.

Croquetas

Creamy hake croquetas disappeared quickly.

Finally, crumbled blood sausage served in small, shallow paella pans of rice. Rich, savory, earthy and crispy around the edges, it was one of the most delicious plates of the whole trip.

After a lovely meal and lively conversation about flamenco, the food, and MarÍa and Manu’s twin children, we said goodbye to our hosts and stepped out into the cool November night. Bob, Dorothy, and Kati grabbed a cab while the rest of us walked back to the hotel across the canal. We stopped at Casa Morales, one of Sevilla’s oldest bars, for a nightcap.

Amid the tall earthenware jugs that lined the walls, Sebastian previewed our next adventure. In the morning we would drive to Jerez, an area known for sherry production and dancing Andalusian horses. There we would learn about – and drink! – sherry. We would also enjoy a multicourse meal by one of Spain’s most innovative chefs, paired exclusively with sherry.

CasaMorlesNEEDSEDIT

Jeff, Roxanne, and Kyle among the earthenware jugs at Casa Morales.

We sipped and chatted about our memorable evening, again humbled by the warmth of the Spanish and their eagerness to share their culture. With the evening’s flamenco memories still vibrating, and tomorrow’s agenda set, we drained our glasses and strolled back to the hotel.

We were in Sevilla, the heart of Andalusia, the home of flamenco. Is there a better place to be?

 

 

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Casa Roman Table

Lunch at Casa Roman on a pleasantly sunny afternoon under a bright blue sky.

 

The first leg of our adventure behind us, we left Madrid on a brisk, sunny morning via high-speed train, southbound for Sevilla.

After a 2 1/2-hour journey through a tawny landscape stippled with olive trees, we detrained, collected our bags and met Sebastian, who along with Dorothy had orchestrated our trip. He led us out of the cavernous station into glaring sunlight, where we boarded Sevilla’s version of the Weismobile and headed to the hotel. The stunning Corral del Rey occupies a restored 17th-century casa palacio in the city’s old quarter. After checking in, we tried to orient ourselves. Sebastian’s advice: Drop a pin on your phone’s map to find your way through the city’s ancient labyrinthine passageways. Modern-day breadcrumbs.

Jamon hanging

Jamon Iberico curing over the bar inside Casa Roman.

After a short respite, we strolled to la Plaza Venerables for lunch. At Casa Roman, waiters arranged a long table on the square in the shadow of the imposing Hospital de los Venerables. Once a home to priests, today the building houses a research center devoted to the work of famed Spanish painter Diego Velázquez.

Pitchers of ruby-red Sangria appeared, along with a couple of bottles of fresh, fruity Albariño. Soon the table was laden with salty cheese, fried cuttlefish, crispy dogfish croquetas, earthy artichoke hearts, tangy Salmorejo and, of course, thin slices of jamón Ibérico with its distinctive ribboning of rich fat.

Inside the restaurant, sweating lobes of Ibérico hung curing above the bar, a familiar scene in our travels. In Toledo, we had asked Gerry why jamón was so ubiquitous. He explained that in medieval times, pork was plentiful and easy to preserve, but it also served an important cultural function. If a Christian found himself needing to prove his religious affiliation, he would eat pork, which is forbidden to pious Muslims and Jews. “See? I am a ham eater!”

Jamón Ibérico appears on nearly every menu as a standalone snack or appetizer. At Casa Roman, it’s incorporated into practically every other dish, too. It was clear: In Spain, jamón is royalty. And during our lunch at Casa Roman, the refrain never rang truer: “We are ham eaters!”  

Lettuce - cropped
Brussles SproutsIf it’s true that you are what you eat, Jeff and I have dual identities. During the work week, I’m known as Salad (my friends call me Sal), and this is my husband, Veg. Mondays through Thursdays, our dinner routine is for the most part just that: routine. I fix a chopped salad for me and Jeff stir-fries veggies for himself. Not that the routine isn’t tasty and satisfying and, in its own way, essential — it just doesn’t vary much.

Weekends are a different story — we cook bold dishes. We eat out. Our identities revel in spice and richness; they relish the perfect dumpling or plate of pasta dressed in butter and cheese and cream; they savor the crisp rind of roast pork; they quench the thirst for wine. Weekends are delicious.

In food, as in most of life, balance is key. But traveling through France, our weekday identities were continually tested. On day one, Jeff was already craving vegetables, and by day four, after a steady diet of duck and goose liver, we came to terms with the idea that veggies and salad may not find a prominent place on the menu for another 10 days. Strange, too, since the markets we visited overflowed with tantalizingly beautiful produce.

Salade Lyonnaise.

Salade Lyonnaise.

And then, a miracle happened: salade Lyonnaise. The perfect balance of weekday and weekend identities. A mound of lovely torn bitter greens, usually frisee or curly endive, dressed in Dijon vinaigrette; a generous strewing of chewy, salty, thick-cut lardon; crispy, butter-toasted croutons; all topped by a soft poached egg. A tap of the fork opens the yolk, spilling yellow richness onto the ingredients below. Technically a salad, but so much more. James decided it would make a beautiful breakfast. Why not? Suddenly Tuesday is best friends with Saturday, dinner is breakfast, and all is right with the world.

 L’ Essential Restaurant – Avignon

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The Setup: Our final day with Kelly, and he was eager to introduce us to Avignon, his stomping grounds. We piled into our vehicles and headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. We started with a walk around the grounds of the Palais des Papes, then took a tour of the palace, where our group unraveled into smaller bunches. Afterward, pooped and hungry, Kelly, Jeff and I met up with Brett, Amy and Aiden and the hometown guy steered us through the streets to a nearby restaurant, L’Essential. Small, bright, modern and quite upscale, the dining room was still nearly filled with fancy lunch patrons finishing their meals. We took a table near the back and contemplated the menu. As at many restaurants we’d visited, L’Essential’s menu of the day was less expensive than choosing a la carte. Yesterday’s stuffing still fresh in my memory, I briefly considered ordering just one item, but in the end it didn’t make sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. Onward I went into another delicious three-course midday meal.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

The Feast: Up first, butternut squash soup, poured at the table into a deep wide bowl containing a creamy cannelle topped with thinly sliced mushrooms. The main course brought a lovely little tower of crispy polenta and flaky cod crowned by a giant prawn, served in an herbed tomato sauce. Then the dessert I could have done without appeared: a fancifully garish highball glass half-filled with yogurt, half with raspberry sauce. Across the rim of the glass rested a puff of pink cotton candy. It was mocking me, I was sure of it. The yogurt and raspberries were cool, creamy and bright, and thankfully Aiden was more than willing to take one for the team and eat my cotton candy — in addition to his mother’s.

Most Memorable:  Another beautiful restaurant, another lovely meal. But I’ll remember the sight of well-coiffed French patrons swirling pink wisps of cotton candy around their tongues.

La Beaugravière – Mondragon

La Beaugravière's handwritten wine list.

La Beaugravière’s handwritten wine list.

The Setup: Our final night in Provence also marked Kelly’s last night with us, and a celebration was in order. La Beaugravière in Mondragon is known for showcasing the region’s truffles in traditional dishes. To get there, we had to drive through the Provencal countryside for about an hour. When we arrived at nearly 9 pm, the spacious dining room was still humming, a few large tables hosting what looked like family gatherings. Our large group took seats at a vast table next to the crackling fire and marveled at the wine list, a voluminous tome entirely handwritten in perfect curly script.

Scallops and spinach puree.

Scallops and spinach puree.

The Feast: Most of us went for the deluxe truffle tasting menu, regularly priced at 120€, but this night, for us, they offered it at 100€, a relative bargain. Jeff, Zandra and I, unable to bear the thought of another gut-busting binge, decided on a more moderate menu with fewer courses. Our meal started with beautifully plump seared sea scallops and a dollop of spinach puree in a buttery cream sauce. Simple, light-ish, off to a good start. According to the menu we were not supposed to have a second course, but the concept of the Empty Plate was apparently not practiced here and we were served a familiar and always satisfying butternut squash veloute. The main course of the “light” menu featured the region’s famous, plump-and-pampered Poulet de Bresse, ours roasted and served with mushrooms and a spoonful of custard-like cake filled squash and other vegetables. The others in our party were treated to the same roasted poulet with truffles tucked under the skin. A restrained cheese course followed (only two pieces), and then dessert: orange laden crepes Suzette for me and a raveable apple tarte for Jeff and Zandra. Two, sometimes three wines with each course was now standard, and tonight was no different.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar's finest.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar’s finest.

After dinner, Kelly treated us to a brief tour of the restaurant’s basement wine cellar. A creaky narrow wooden stairway descended to a musty low-ceilinged labyrinth of shelves and  stacked crates, filled with wine bottles sporting faded labels and vintages spanning the 20th Century. Just another evening with Kelly. Quite a treat.

Most Memorable: The meal itself was rich and remarkable, but this night is remembered bittersweetly as our last with Kelly.  After dinner, in the parking lot, we said goodbye to our friend with three alternating cheek kisses as is tradition in the region. Bise, bise, bise … multiplied by 11.

Restaurant Aux 3 Maries- Lyon

The Setup: The high-speed rail made short work of the kilometers between Avignon and Lyon, and we arrived with enough time for a quick lunch before our afternoon appointment.  Jack discussed nearby options with the hotel’s front desk, and we headed a couple of streets over to a little bouchon, Restaurant Aux 3 Maries. Upstairs, in an area quieter than the bustling dining room below, we sat at a large table by the window.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

The Feast: Compared to the truffle banquent of the previous night, this meal was relatively light and casual, with each of us ordering just two small courses. I started with salade Lyonnaise, as did a few others at the table. My second course: a few wedges of salty, creamy cheese with baguette. Lovely and light.  Jeff, James and Amy were tempted by the andouille sausage listed on the menu, but when it arrived it was not the familiar, spicy encased meat we’re accustomed to in the States. This andouille was a looser sausage with a pungent, gamey aroma and flavor. It was only after lunch that we learned the sausages’ primary ingredient was tripe. Well, that would explain things.

Most Memorable: That splendid moment when the egg yolk ruptures, cascading over the salade Lyonnaise. Heaven.

Le Merciere Lyonnais Bouchon – Lyon

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in Sherry.

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in sherry.

The Setup: Our final day in France. We spent the morning trying to keep up with our fast-walking guide, who took us on a circuitous tour through traboules and markets, past the old cathedral whose detailed carved facade comprised a multitude of ancient stories and characters, to a silk atelier, and eventually over the Rhone into the more modern part of town, where we ended at Les Halles de Lyon, the enormous marketplace of food purveyors and cafes. (I envy the U.S. cities that support these Euro-style markets and feel fortunate that Portland may soon be home to one.) We wandered for a bit, tasting a few samples, then said goodbye to our guide. Then back to old town, where we found a cute, casual two-story bouchon tucked in an alleyway. Up the impossibly narrow spiral staircase we went, to the lengthy, narrow second-floor dining room, much of whose space was consumed by our large table. It was here that we parted ways with our friend Jack (many hugs and handshakes) and here that we met yet another good-natured waitress, who traversed the tight ringlet of a staircase a dozen times carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, feigning fatigue and mock exasperation.

The Feast: The menu was filled with traditional Lyonnaise dishes, each one so tempting it was difficult to choose. Having fallen for it the day before, I started with salade Lyonnaise.  After that, French onion soup gooey with melted cheese and soft caramelized onions. But this version had a kicker: On the side was a ramekin with a raw egg yolk and a bit of sherry meant to be stirred into the soup for even more delicious richness. An unbelievably wonderful idea. Other dishes at our grand table included a hearty, sweet-tinged chestnut soup and incredibly rich pasta in a dense cream sauce. With Kelly not there to guide our wine choices, we ordered one at the suggestion of the waitress and proceeded to drink a total of five bottles. Heathens.

Most Memorable: The addition of the egg yolk in sherry added a luscious richness to an already-rich soup. But even more memorable was our server, whose sweetness and good sense of humor shone despite having to make several trips carrying dishes up and down those narrow, winding stairs. Great way to cap off our most memorable of vacations.

****

Post Script

When people ask, I gush about about our trip to France, but my words fail to do it justice. Gradually I’ve arrived at a quick, digestible version that most people can relate to: the food, the wine, the people, the countryside, it was all amazing.

Fifteen glorious, fast-paced days. Eleven great people. Eight versions of butternut squash soup. There is so much that we did and saw that I didn’t even begin to touch on here. All the chateaux and wineries; the many medieval villages and castles; pizza in Sarlat; pho in Lyon; the private tour of the caves in Dordogne; more foie gras than we could begin to quantify. I am so grateful to our travel companions, a wonderful family who so generously invited us into their fold. It was an adventure we’ll never forget.

View from Saint-Émilion church tower.

View from Saint-Emilion church tower

“Nine a.m. sharp.” Those were Kelly’s parting words on the eve of our departure from Bordeaux. Our next destination, Sarlat, was 200 kilometers away, and we had appointments en route, so we would hit the road early.

At 9:10 the next morning, two of the Jumpy’s seven passengers were missing.

A phone call was made, slumber disrupted, belongings were hastily collected. Several choice vulgarities, delivered in standard American English, undoubtedly resounded up and down the third floor of Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Sixteen minutes later, Zandra and James burst out of the building, luggage clattering, with damp hair and linen-marked features.

All but two of us enjoyed a nice chuckle — this was, after all, a vacation. By the time J&Z recovered their sense of humor, we were 20 kilometers east of Bordeaux headed to Saint-Émilion, and we all had learned a lesson: Don’t trifle with jet lag. Jet lag always wins.

Wine Tasting in Saint-Émilion, Evening Picnic in Sarlat

Fonplegade Wine Tasting

Wine tasting at Chateau Fonplegade.

The Setup: In Saint-Émilion we began with tours and tastings at two quite different chateaux: Chateau Fonplegade, American-owned and très élégant; and Chateau Pavie Macquin, also lovely but a bit more rustic. At both, the wine and the hospitality were first-class. Thanks to Kelly’s contacts and expertise, finding a mediocre bottle, or a less-than-breathtaking venue in which to sample it, or an ungracious host, all were proving difficult.

After the tours, we drove into the centuries-old village of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site with daunting world-heritage-class verticality. We parked at the base of the hill and labored up the winding cobblestone streets to the town summit for lunch at bustling L’Envers du Decor. Afterward, Dorothy, Zandra and I thought we’d do a little shopping, but ended up climbing (more climbing!) the steep spiral steps of the tower of Saint-Émilion’s famous monolithic church, from which we enjoyed a splendid panorama. Meanwhile, the guys descended to Terres Millesime, a wine shop at the bottom of the hill, for another tasting appointment. We joined them after our excursion and were early enough to have missed only a couple of selections. Lucky us.

Terres Milleseme

Enjoying Saint-Émilion’s hospitality.

Many tastings — les dégustations — are polite, sedate affairs. The one at Terres Millesime was performance art.

Our amiable host, Manu — reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci — seemed unable to sit. He repeatedly leapt out of his chair to deliver a generous pour, a fist-shaking advocacy of the home-country viticulture, a boisterous celebration of his Burgundian heritage. Mostly in French. At one point he broke into song. He offered toasts, shook hands, patted backs. He sipped a fragrant Bordeaux, gazed heavenward and kissed his fingertips. Kelly, as translator, cheerfully tried to keep pace.

By the time we finished the tasting, we were entertained, a little tired, and a little buzzed. The performance, if that’s what it was, succeeded. We chose wines and placed orders, which given the work involved in arranging shipping took the better part of an hour. When we were ready to leave, most of Saint-Émilion was dark, and we were still 150 kilometers from our beds.

Boulangerie

La boulangerie, France’s answer to fast food.

The Feast: Figuring we wouldn’t find much to eat in Sarlat at that hour, James, Zandra, Jeff and I hurried down the street to a little boulangerie and bought a baguette, a couple of quiches and a sackful of ham and cheese croissants. Then back to the van. Kelly tested the speed limit, James navigated, and we made Sarlat in good time.

We arrived at the B&B, Les Cordeliers, and were greeted by innkeepers Chris and Amanda, an affable British couple who set us up in our rooms and then joined us in James and Zandra’s room for a picnic. Chris contributed plates and napkins as well as ham, cheeses and crudite, and we drank the wine left over from Manu’s tasting — a simple, light meal that struck exactly the right chord on our first night in Sarlat.

Most Memorable: Our gracious hosts, all of them — Manu, Chris and Amanda — and those flaky, buttery ham and cheese croissants. When it comes to fast food, the French boulangerie wins hands down.

Lunch with Edouard and Carole Aynaud — Pechalifour

Retired truffle dog

Retired truffle dog, enjoying the good life.

The Setup: Our final full day in Sarlat took us to the hamlet of Pechalifour to meet Edouard Aynaud. “Le Truffe,” as he is known — lanky, bespectacled, with a beak like a raptor — vibrated enthusiasm for his work: pursuit and promotion of the elusive Tuber melanosporum, or black Périgord truffle. The Aynaud cottage, which looked from outside like it might have been put up by masterful medieval stonemasons, was cozy and modern inside, and included a classroom featuring a resident retired truffle hound, an easy-going golden Lab who needed no invitation to show you his belly. Before leading visitors out into the truffière to hunt, Edouard conducts an introduction to truffles — the species and their differences, aromas, flavors, the risks of fraud. Turns out the Tuber indicum, or Chinese truffle, is tasteless and bounces when you drop it.

After class, we headed into the orchard led by the current top dog, Farrah. A spirited border collie mix, Farrah shares Edouard’s passion for unearthing truffles, because doing so means she wins a tasty prize hidden in her master’s pocket.

Truffle

Périgord black truffle.

oeufs brouillés

The beginnings of oeufs brouillés.

After the hunt (Farrah found two truffles, but neither was ripe), we returned to the house and met Edouard’s wife, Carole. She directed us to the kitchen and demonstrated classic oeufs brouillés: Grated truffle and butter mingle at room temperature in a pan on the stove; crack two eggs per person into a bowl and pour the eggs into the pan; over a low fire, whisk furiously for 10 to 15 minutes (taking care not to perspire into the mixture) until you have a smooth texture, neither scrambled nor lumpy.

Truffle honey

Truffle honey and cheese curls.

The Feast: After the demonstration, we gathered around the dining-room table, where we were treated to the silky oeufs brouillés with their earthy hint of truffle, followed by succulent roast pork and fluffy truffle mashed potatoes. Next came a green salad and a cheese course. The cheese had been shaved with a cheese curler into delicate carnations, which drizzled with truffle honey were a bite of heaven. Last, we were served a small cup of ice cream with brandied plum and a dash of cognac. The meal alone made this outing worth every minute, not to mention we saw a truffe agriculteur in action.

Most Memorable: Edouard and Carole’s generous hospitality made this day one of the more exceptional of the trip. And while it was not the last time we encountered oeufs brouillés, it was the best.

Le Parc Franck Putelat – Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The walled city of Carcassonne.

The Setup: We ate many incredible meals in France, but Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne featured one of the top pedigrees. Putelat is a Bocuse D’Argent winner. His restaurant, a recipient of two Michelin stars, is a sleek, modern establishment at the foot of the beautiful walled old city. The muted earth tones and clean lines of the warmly lighted dining room contrasted perfectly with the adventurous dishes that emerged from the kitchen.

Bob, the senior omnivore of our party, ventured boldly through the menu, choosing the “Action Reaction,” a nine-course dégustation that showcased the chef’s latest inspirations. The rest of us opted for the six-course “Emotion,” our first real attempt at restraint on this vacation.

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup topped with a cheese crisp.

Empty Plate

Le Empty Plate.

The Feast: The meal started with beautiful foie-gras-laced bites, including savory foie gras macaroons. A rich, creamy pumpkin velouté followed, served in a gourd capped with a lacy cheese crisp. Whenever Bob received a dish that was not included in the shorter menu, his tablemates were served empty plates over which they salivated until the Smartest Guy in the Room finished, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Everyone’s plates were then whisked away.

IMG_1056

Pink duck breast and duck terrine.

The entrée for the table was duck breast, pink and perfectly tender. That was followed by a cheese cart laden with more than 40 varieties. From the cart the steward drew out hidden compartments to reveal additional aromatic selections, while diners at a neighboring table shielded their noses from the vapor drifting across the room.

It was in the course of this five-hour marathon that we were introduced to the concept of pre-dessert — that is, the warm-up dessert before the main desserts. (Yes, plural.) The pre-dessert was no smaller or less significant than the desserts that followed, just an addition to them. God, France is a beautiful place.

desserts

Pre-dessert (left), dessert (top right), post dessert (bottom right). Glorious.

Most Memorable: More than a delectable meal, Le Parc gave us the empty plate and the pre-dessert, two unforgettable but starkly conflicting concepts. I’ll also remember the nod of deference Le Parc’s silver-pinned sommelier proffered when he noticed the golden cluster on Kelly’s lapel. Not wanting or expecting any special treatment, Kelly was embarrassed — he had meant to remove his pin, which signifies his status. As far as we were concerned, it’s always good to have friends in high places.

Dinner photoAll things in moderation.

Wise counsel, unless you find yourself traveling through France in November, when the chill whets the appetite for hearty food and rich wine, and temptation lurks around every corner. Food and drink abound. Moderation usually is absent from the menu.

So how to summarize two weeks of gluttony? On a side trip out of Sarlat, we visited La Combe aux Oies, a family-owned organic goose farm and small-batch foie gras producer. There we made the acquaintance of a gaggle of astonishingly handsome geese undergoing the stage of the foie gras process known as the “gavage,” the 15- to 18-day tube feeding that enlarges the animal’s liver in preparation for harvest. In those plump birds we recognized ourselves, except that the force-feeding we endured was tube-free and wholly self-induced. Afterward, “gavage” was our mealtime exclamation, and the foie goose, which gives its all for sustenance and pleasure, became the emblem of our journey.

Photo by James Walton

Keeping watch at La Combe aux Oies.

And an improbable journey it was: that rare convergence of adventurous, generous, often hilarious travel companions and an itinerary bursting with gorgeous landscapes, knowledgeable guides, historic sites, memorable characters and, of course, unforgettable meals.

A couple of caveats: The posts that follow represent the most memorable meals and moments of our trip, with a few exceptions. Because of an untimely cold, I missed three knockout dinners. And of the feasts I did attend, the astonishing amount of food seven people can order makes it nearly impossible to recount everything, though I try to describe as much as possible.

Voila le gavage.

La Brasserie Bordelaise – Bordeaux

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

 The Setup: The six of us arrived in Bordeaux on an overcast Friday afternoon, our luggage intact and our dispositions only slightly worse for the journey — we were a little tired and a lot thirsty. Kelly Mc Aulliffe, wine expert, translator, guide, chauffeur and fearless ringleader, retrieved us from the airport and ferried us into the the city to the Regent Grand Hotel. Our rooms were not available yet, so Kelly — a French-trained American sommelier who lives and works in France, a rarity — herded us out into the crowded cobblestone streets in search of a bottle and a bite to eat. Muddled as we were by jetlag, it was all he could do to keep us assembled, but after a short search he found a table for seven at Brasserie Bordelaise. We squeezed ourselves in alongside a table on which reclined an entire cured leg of pig from which the wait staff was shaving and serving thin slices, and l’hédonisme officially began.

The Feast: Not wanting to spoil dinner, we ordered a few “light” snacks, highlights of which were a delicately sweet, tangy steak tartare, and ribbons of the aforementioned jambon Bellota pata negra, salty and so tender they nearly dissolved in the mouth. It was at Brasserie Bordelaise that Monsieur Professeur Mc Auliffe’s wine instruction commenced in the form of a bright Sancerre, a Pouilly-Fuisse and then a Vouvray. We sipped, compared, contrasted, nibbled and chatted away two or three hours before the fog of weariness began to close in.

Most Memorable: The tartare was the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve been craving it ever since, but it’s the ham that haunts us still. It was a perfect way to ease into our trip.

La Tupina – Bordeaux

Jumpy

Le royal ride.

 The Setup: After a much-needed nap, we all piled into the Jumpy — the sporty Citroen nine-seater that would be our carriage for the next two weeks — and Kelly drove through the evening drizzle to La Tupina, a renowned bistro tucked down one of the side streets off the Garonne River esplanade. Inside, we were greeted by a bright display of autumn vegetables and the heady aroma of offal and other delectables sizzling in the hearth where much of the cooking is done. The establishment appeared to have once been a residence, giving it a rustic hominess. Our large round table in the corner of the dining room (nee living room?) accommodated us and the conversation nicely.

La Tupina

Coddled egg, foie gras.

The Feast: I started with coddled egg and foie gras served in a petite cocotte with a side of toast. Light and decadent all at once. For the table, Dorothy splurged on caviar, a festive opening to our first dinner in France. James and Zandra started with duck carpaccio. For entrees, Jeff and Bob had the house specialty: tripe with ceps (porcino mushrooms), a rich stew served tableside from a Dutch oven. I had a simple but perfectly pink duck breast topped with lardons, and a side of duck-fat fries.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

More wine, of course, with a focus on reds, and Kelly expounded on the art and science of wine tasting (and here we thought we were already experts). First consider the color and the depth of color; swirl the wine and stuff your nose inside the glass for a good whiff, trying to pull out the characteristics (floral? fruity? earthy? mineral? animal?). Taste the wine — is it fruity? Acidic? Minerally? Assess its texture and its length. Then go through the process again. And again. More wine, more food, more talk, and by the end we were bursting — a recurring theme.

Most Memorable: Well, first, the food. That coddled egg and foie gras, to be specific. But aside from the food, the best thing about La Tupina was our lovely and gracious server, a petite French twentysomething with a sweet disposition and a future in wine stewardship. She, as much as the meal, made this a memorable evening.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – Bordeaux

The Setup: The following morning, a gray, drizzly day of wine tasting began with a tour of a beautiful chateau, our first. Our host at Smith Haut Lafitte began by describing the surrounding vineyards from an upper deck of the complex, then led us down to the aging room, with its stacks and rows of oak barrels and the now-familiar aroma, a heady, damp mixture of wine and wood. Deeper into the chateau we went, to the fermentation room with its gargantuan oak vats, and on through another, larger barrel-aging chamber, before ascending to the ground floor. We toured the cooperage, the workshop where the wine barrels are made, where the oak is carefully chosen and cut into planks before being banded and fired. As wine ages in the barrels, the oak imparts its characteristics of toast and vanilla, flavors whose intensity depends on the length of time in the container, how long a barrel is fired and whether it’s new or being reused.

Barrels

Smith Haut Lafitte’s massive aging cave.

It was fascinating to learn about the many components of viticulture and winemaking — the soil, the weather conditions, the yeasts, new barrels vs. used barrels, the methods of pigeage — that is, pushing down into the juice the sturdy “cap” of grape skins and other solids that rise to the surface during fermentation (or, alternatively, pumping the juice over the cap). The solids impart tannins.

The morning culminated with a tasting. After a sample or two or three in the bright tasting room, the guide pressed a button. A James Bond-worthy trapdoor hummed as it opened in the floor to reveal a staircase descending to an underground cellar and tasting room, where we finished the tour.

Tasting room

Hidden tasting room.

Lamb Terrine

Lamb terrine and eggplant puree.

 The Feast: Lunch followed at the estate’s homey restaurant near a crackling fireplace: frothy pumpkin soup; tender lamb terrine accompanied by a reduced jus and pureed eggplant; roasted hake over mashed potatoes; flaky white sea bream filet over tender leeks and a butter wine sauce. Paradis.

 Most Memorable: Lunch was delicious, especially that lamb terrine, but it was the 007-style hidden tasting room that stole the afternoon.

Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.

Toledo’s sloping lunch

April 27, 2011

Tilted soup and sliding spaghetti.

Everything in Toledo is “up the hill,” the guidebook said, and that’s where we went: out of the Moorish-inspired train depot, across the winding Tajo river and up the hill toward the center of old Toledo and the Plaza Zocodover. Station to square involved a 20-minute hike up steep paths and stairways, and as we neared the summit we found there was an escalator cut into the slope that would have done most of the trudgery for us, but no matter. Lunch usually tastes better with a sprinkle of sweat.

Old Toledo is like a movie set. The city is only 60 miles from Madrid (30 minutes by bullet train), but it felt like we had been transported back in time. Narrow streets and ancient buildings form a shadowy cobblestone maze navigated by grandmothers carting home the day’s groceries. Schoolkid chatter echoes across the plaza. But the Hollywood reverie was soon interrupted by the tourist masses, most of whom were headed to the same place: the Catedral de Toledo.

Begun in 1227 and built during a 250-year span, the cathedral is awe-inspiring — dim and cool, cavernous and soaring, with a marble tomb or gated chapel at every turn. The echoing interior drips with intricate carving and gilded altarwork; the sacristy houses a museum’s trove of paintings by El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and Carvaggio. Eyes heavenward and mouthes agape, we explored. Stunning.

After a couple of hours, the heady combination of hills and holiness got our appetites up, so out we went in search of sustenance. We landed at Restaurant Alcazar, whose terrace perches delicately on an incline. J started with gazpacho, which slanted in the bowl; I had to slurp my espeguettis before they slid off the plate. Frankly, the starters were the best part of the meal, but the fried fish and sauteed pork loin entrees were satisfying enough after an eventful morning, especially accompanied by a refreshing Spanish Rueda.

After lunch, we spent another hour hiking the slopes of Toledo before we made our way down the hill and back to the train station. The trek was definitely worth the effort if only for a few hours and a decidedly tilted meal.

Local Color

April 26, 2011

Fruit stall

Fruit stall at Mercado de San Miguel

Amid the grays, buffs, rusts and other muted tones of old Madrid, cherry red tends to catch the eye. Exiting Plaza Mayor through the northwest gate, cherry red is what you encounter — actual cherries, truth be told, and plump, gorgeous ones — beckoning from behind the glass walls of always-mobbed Mercado de San Miguel.

The market, a sleek food and drink bazaar, occupies an airy iron-and-glass structure that dates to 1916. Everything tempts — fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and pasta, meats, seafood, wine and beer, cheese, olives, pastries, tapas, flowers — all lovingly displayed. If the tumbler of piquant gazpacho and glasses of crisp white wine we devoured are an indication, they’re all delicious too. We’re hoping to eat a full meal here before we leave.

Mercado de San Miguel — one more delightful surprise.

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Easter Sunday in Madrid

April 24, 2011

Pate and gazpacho at La Finca de Susana.

In stark contrast to Saturday, today (Sunday) was near-perfect: Yesterday dawned cold, rainy and dreary; this morning was crisp and sunny. Yesterday’s walk along the Paseo de Prado began amid lush greenery but veered into the harsh concrete of Nuevos Ministerios; today’s expedition through the Parque del Buen Retiro was idyllic start to finish. Yesterday’s afternoon meal was a hastily chosen, overpriced, mostly bland filler on the Plaza Mayor; today’s main meal was sophisticated, delicious and affordable.

After our now-habitual breakfast buffet, we set out to erase yesterday’s shortcomings. Our walk led us to Madrid’s well-manicured version of Central Park where we spent several hours amid the maze of rose bushes and trellises of the Rosaleda (rose garden), the peacock party in the Jardines de D. Cecilio Rodriguez, the park’s central lake thronged by families and brimming with rowboats, and surrounding neighborhoods. Afterward, we ambled west in search of a friend-recommended restaurant: La Finca de Susanna near the Sevilla metro stop. La Finca had a line forming at 2 p.m., so we added our name to the hour-long wait list and headed around the corner to a cafe with a pastry-laden front window.

Hontanares has a coffee-shop vibe but a taberna menu. We sat at the counter, ordered wine and olives from the genial tabernero and recounted our walk. We were tempted by toasted bocadillos, meat- and cheese-filled pastries and more tapas, but did our best to avoid filling up before our scheduled meal.

At 3, we returned to the bright yellow awnings that mark the exterior of La Finca de Susanna. The interior is a study in bustling efficiency. Putty-colored walls, oversized black-and-gold barrel chandeliers and wall of wine are markedly contemporary, while rustic wood floors, crisp linens and palm-flanked windows give the space its namesake country-house feel.

The menu’s hearty Mediterranean and Spanish dishes make ordering a challenge. We started with a refreshing gazpacho laced with minced onions, red bell peppers and crunchy croutons; and a creamy chicken-liver pate enhanced by fruity olive oil. Hot fresh-baked bread did sopping duty as we awaited our entrees. J’s succulent braised pork ribs arrived accompanied by perfectly cooked couscous. My lamb shoulder, falling off the bone and bathed in a earthy pan juices, was complemented by sweet caramelized baby onions. We finished our two rather large plates, but dessert was out of the question — though a rich-looking wedge of chocolate torte sent to neighboring tables flirted with us briefly. Next time.

A beautiful day capped by a satisfying meal — a perfect Easter Sunday. We dedicate today’s meal to Julia y Pedro, the patron saints of the weekend “linner.” Mwah.

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Los Perros de Madrid

April 23, 2011

Un perrito wants ice cream.

A remarkable thing about Madrid is the concentration of little dogs. Sure, there are larger perros about, but everywhere we turn we run into some diminutive fuzzball on the end of a lead invoking awwwws from me and eye-rolling from J. (It could be that he sees his future in those bitty perritos, but is loath to admit it.)

Green space abounds in this metropolis but not in old Madrid. And, as any city dweller knows, when nature calls, los perros answer without hesitation. So along the streets in this part of town, it’s not unusual to see a little guy squatting on the cobblestone until the terrible tether tugs, pulling him off balance. Unable to set anchor for a bit of relief is a great burden.

It’s clear Madrileños love their pooches, but to call our hotel pet-friendly would be an understatement by the looks of the room-service “Menu para Mascotas”: vegetable risotto with rice, chicken stock, carrot, onion, asparagus and spinach, 16€; sliced filet mignon with steamed potato, olive oil and “a little salt,” 25€; suckling pig with couscous, 21€. And of course a dessert of petit fours.

La familia.

All approved and guaranteed by a local animal hospital.

We thought he world should know, but por favor … do not let Chance and Ernesto hear. We would have a revolución on our hands.