Tag Archives: food

Food for three tables

*Updated with pictures 27/5!*

Before leaving the States, I decided that the two things I wanted to focus on the most in my trip would be food/drink and politics.  (Hence the [marginally misleading, as the only “voting” I’m doing is on nougats and cheeses] URL of this blog.)  I’ve sorely neglected both, so I’m going to risk a semi-long entry on the culinary highlights (and lowlights) of London, France, and Greece.
London
Best:  Borough Market
Worst:  The smell of burning cheese at Borough Market
New and unusual:  A book I paged through before leaving, London Culture Shock, notes, “Some of [London’s] shops feature live and jellied eels.  The latter cannot be described and have to be experience.  Once is enough.”  For me, zero was enough.
Other highlights:  They really do make a great fish and chips.  And a good British ale is well worth the 2 or 3 pounds–so cheap!–that pints go for in London.
Notes from 4/24 on Borough Market:
“Borough Market!  What a wonderful place.  Could be one of my favorites ever.  Everything for sale here.  Hits: French cheeses, British cheeses (notably, not as good or as varied as the French ones.  I sampled a very mild Cheshire but eventually settled on an excellent Welsh one.  Godwynn’s farm, or something, I think?  I love watching them slice the huge wheels of cheese so neatly with just a piece of string), asparagus in green and purpe and white.  Piles of mushrooms: tiny brown and cream ones the size of pinky nails called St. George’s Day.  Sold for the low price of 50 pounds per pound (or kilo…?  unclear) in one spot.  The requisite balsamic vinegar and olive oil stand had, I don’t know, at least 20 different varieties of oil and vinegar on sale.  While some were exotic things like white truffle oil, at least 10 of these were just different blends of olive oil.  Descriptions tacked above each tasting dish read like wine labels: ‘Smooth yet still distinct, with clear hints of balsamic herbs.’  Really.  Am I a savage?  It tasted kind of like olive oil to me…**
“The toasting cheese–augh.  There was a stand where they were toasting great rounds of cheese, huge pieces liquifying and burbling to be poured over potatoes or sausages.  What a STENCH.

“Ostrich meat!  Ostritch EGGS!  Kangroo burgers!!  I almost tried this last one but then lost my nerve, slash could not bring myself to spend 4 pounds on such a thing.  A chocolate shop with enormous bright cocoa pods mixed in with the luxury dark 89% bars.  At a neighboring stand, butchers cut meat right off hocks that still have little hooves on the end.
“Meats in general much more closely resembling original animal.  Dried (preserved?) pig head above sign advertising pork for sale (complete with cartoon figure of pig on crutches grimacing).
“Really very crowded.  I hear lots of French (common theme for my time in London altogether).  Of course alcohol on tap is for sale.  Major emphasis on wine, especially champagne.  One tall flute costs three pounds. Plaque in nearby church courtyard saying ‘no drinking!’: roughly 8 x 11”, half-hidden behind a bush.
“Fudge booth.  Olive-skinned men brandishing tiny Turkish pastries in pairs of tongs shouting and beckoning to all passerby: ‘Sir!  Mademoiselle!  Bonjour!  Come try!’  Narrow alleys connecting markets.  That guy selling the random magazine again, ‘The Big Idea’ I think.  Why do they sell these only in darkened street corners?  Weird.
“Seafood!  Peple sucking oysters right out of shells.  Heaps of scallops with clumps of sea scum and mud still frothing the shells.  Fish on ice.  Fish with jaws gaping.  A giant halibut with a cod being severed between its lifeless jaws.  Live lobster.  I tasted a…sauce? topping? dressing?…made with cuttlefish ink and cuttlefish flesh.  Heaps of slimy purple squid lined in rows.  Even the fish queue here.
“The handsome freckled Welsh boy who sold me the Godwynn cheese is the one who remarked, when I said that three days in London was not enough, ‘A lifetime in London is not enough.'”
France
Best:  A dessert called Ile Flottant.  Light, creamy cloud of fresh meringue in a pool of sugary caramel sauce.  Antoine ordered this at a restaurant in Bretagne and offered me a taste.  Sweet God, angels were singing.
Worst:  A tie between being charged 2.50 euro for about 4 ounces of hot chocolate and the spectacularly bloody shark heads at the Port-en-Bessain market
New and unusual:  Eel.  Snails.  Frog legs.  Oysters.  I liked them in that order.  Snails are really tasty–like saltier, chewier mussles.  Oysters taste like fleshy seawater.
Other highlights:  Making chocolate-chip cookies for the French family!  Wine, cheese, seafood, Georgette’s cooking, Jean-Vincent’s cooking.  I am a lucky lady on the host and hostess front.
The escargot experience:
They give you a special fork for this

Les escargots arrivent...

She's gonna do it!

On va en essayer un...

Mmmm good!

Voila la fin! Delicieux!

Notes from 4/30 on our first night in Normandy:
“We got to Sophie and Jean-Vincent’s house around 7:30 pm.  Most everyone has a cigarette, we all have a beer.  More smoking, more talking.  Jean-Vincent shows us the giant side of pork that he’s roasting in the oven, and the special side dish he’s made out of apples–a Normand speciality–and cabbage–more of an Alsace trademark.  Jean-Vincent opens wine.  We drink wine and beer.  Smoking, talking.  Discussion of Obama, Sarkozy, Sarkozy’s wife.
We talk until 9:15, when we decide to to put plates and forks and such on the table.  We have some champagne.  Smoking, talking.  We drink.  Smoking.  Finally, Jean-Vincent takes the meat out of the oven.  We sit down.  Everyone gets a glass of wine.  Everyone gets served meat and the vegetable.  Bread (of course).  More wine.  We talk.  Wine.  Meat.  Smoking.  Discussion of British and Australian inability to cook quality food.  Discussion of my inability to pronounce the French “ou,” as in “oui,” “coucou,” and “pou,” meaning lice.  Discussion of Jean-Vincenct’s inability to pronounce “lice.”  After the main course, cheese.  All Normand of course.  Names I know like Camembert, names I don’t like Pont Eveque, many other names I’ve forgotten.  Smoke talk smoke talk play with the dog and the cat.  Cheese, wine, Calvados (liquer made from apples).  Talking.  Discussion of the history of Normandy.  Dessert: a heavy rice pudding, deliciously sweet and creamy.  Wine.  Calvados taken with sugar.  Talking.  Smoking.  Talking.  Coffee.
“It is now after 1h.”
“I love France.”

Engaging in the other celebrated French pastime

Wine, Calvados, coffee

Greece
Best:  Even though we were in a rush to catch a ride from her friends, Danai (my hostess on Mykonos) made sure to fill me a 1.5 liter bottle with olive oil from a jug given to her by a friend.  The friend’s family made the olive oil on their farm in Crete.  It’s so rich and sweet, you can drink it from the bottle.
Worst:  I can’t really do ouzo so well
New and unsual:  Some kind of dried meat on Mykonos.  I don’t really ask questions anymore
Other highlights:  What can I say?  They’ve had 6000 years to perfect this stuff.
Dinner on 5/8:
As part of your profile, CouchSurfing asks you to fill out your “current mission in life.”  Giorgos, my host on Syros, wrote that his mission is “to teach how to cook yamista!”  I’m glad it is, because I now have his not-so-secret recipe scrawled in my notebook after watching the master at work.  The hardest part of making yamista, or stuffed peppers and tomatoes, is overriding your instinct to be conservative in use of fats and oils.  Cook arborio rice in fresh tomato pulp, onions, cucumber, garlic, and a handful of parsley, use to fill tomatoes and peppers, lather all surfaces with olive oil to depth of several inches, cook in oven until you’re too hungry to stand it.
We also had “real” tzatsiki–Giorgos’ homemade recipe involving a nice handful of garlic cloves, shredded.  The sweet-sourness of the yogurt and the sting of the garlic play off each other very well.  A lovely balance with the cucumber mediating in the middle.
And, of course, Greek salad, topped with huge cubes of rich, dense, salty feta and also floating in a few inches of olive oil.  It’s not for nothing that Athena is said to have won guardianship of Athens through her gift of the olive tree.
For dessert, fluffy white clouds of nougat made with Syros honey and light and chewy pieces of sugared marizpan soaked in rose water.  This last one is very east meets west.
Filling the tomatos and peppers

** Actually, I went on an olive oil tasting spree in a square in Split a few days ago, and I COULD taste the difference between the oils from different regions.  A clear sign I’ve been in Mediterranean countries too long.

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Bon soir, monsieur

Summary: Night bus/ferry by way of Dover/Calais, cellphone death, Paris from 11éme to 1ér, Holocaust Memorial, Notre Dame, “mo ee TOE” = mojito, escargots and frogs legs, Musée Rodin, Jeu de Palme, Tour Eiffel, Basque food, castle and forest Fontainebleau, hearing the cuckoo, Normandy, Dday beaches, amazing Normand cousins, Cherbourg, the end of the earth, insanely long meals, Mont St. Michel, high tides, Brittany, French cheese, cider, calvados, OYSTERS, possibly also eels (…yes, I just checked.  Eels), family Sunday, a walk in the American Cemetary with the French family, Paris again.

My French experience in 5 expressions: Prend son temps (take your time).   Faut le gouter (you have to try it)!  Vas-y (go ahead, your turn).   Profiter (to enjoy, to benefit from).  En fait, c’est aussi un/une cousine (actually, he/she is also a cousin).

Wow.  This was really a very, very special experience.  I’m going to enjoy the other countries on my trip, but it was really something pretty amazing to be able spend a week getting to know more of this branch of the family that miraculously rediscovered us in the 80s.  That sentence made more sense in French in my head….quand la famille française et la famille américaine se sont retrouvées, when the two branches found each other again.

Condensed highlights that I hope to expound upon more in additional entries:

  • The French are really very serious about their food.  I know this doesn’t really come as a shock to anyone.  But seriously, it’s not just a stereotype.  (I was at one point privy to the ultimate in European caricature: listening to a group of French people make fun of English food.  Really.)  Young, old, male, female, urban, countryside, everyone knows the names of the cheese on the dessert plate and the region where the wine came from.  And if they don’t, they’ll ask, because it’s important to know.  I love that everything here takes the name of where it comes from–Camembert is a type of cheese, yes, but it’s named after the village in France where it comes from.  The French are so much more connected to the earth of their own country that way.
  • Meals, similarly, are not a brief affair.  They are all decidedly 3 or 4 courses, albeit small ones.  The two longest dinners I had here, including drinks before, lasted at least 4 or 5 hours.  We did snack (grignoter) during this trip, but always sitting down, and always slowly.
  • In general, if you like being in a big rush, don’t come to France.  You won’t get it.
  • You will also not be a fan if you really really like to know the name of the street you’re on, or the number of the highway you need to take.  In fact, if those are requirements for your travels, you probably don’t ever want to go anywhere in Europe by car.
  • Don’t try to keep track of which king was in charge when.  Fruitless.
  • Castles are like cathedrals: the first one is impressive.  The fifth one is boring.
  • If cigarette smoke really bothers you, you should probably find a face mask before coming to France.  I’ll quote our Normand cousin’s husband Jean Vincent on this, who said to Antoine and Sylvan apologetically, as we entered his house for the first time: “Smoking down here in the kitchen is fine!  No problem!  But not in the bedrooms…sorry.”
  • The stereotype that the French have bad manners, in my experience, is absolutely not true.  And I don’t think I’ve gotten this impression because I speak French.  The French always, always say “bonjour” or “bon soir” entering a shop or before talking to someone, they always thank them, and they always leave with “Bonne journée/soirée/weekend!  Au revoir!”  They always ask in the morning if you slept well, and they are quick to ask if you are feeling okay, have eaten enough, want more coffee, etc.  I know these are all common courtesies, but the French are really diligent about saying them.  Story: at maybe 11 or 12 at night, we were driving around trying to find the right street to take us back to Port-en-Bessain in Normandy.  We were starting to feel a little worried when Antoine saw someone walking on the street and decided to ask him if he knew the right road.  He rolled down the window and began, “Excusez-moi, connaissez–”  Excuse me, do you know…  Then he caught himself and began again, “Bon soir, monsieur,” (good evening, sir) before posing his query.  I loved that.

I know, not enough pictures yet.  Soon.  I promise.