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Archive for March, 2011

Sometimes I have rather romantic or idealistic visions of how I think my traveling life should be. A part of me would like to be the nomad back packer, following my nose and seeing where the tides take me. I would wear a huge Lowepro backpack with maybe a small billy strapped to the back and ankle hugging mountain shoes. Instead of hair products and make up remover in my toilet bag I would have hand sanitiser and water purifying tablets.

However, I prefer to know where I am staying each night, to have a warm shower ready and carry a more orthopedically sound roller suitcase.

Though I do prefer the comfortable traveling life, that is not to say I don’t enjoy the excitement of turning up in a new city (with my booked accommodation and warm shower) and roaming un-guided. I like the challenge and I feel the potential for discovery is greater if I haven’t memorised an entire Google Maps itinerary.

I’m not sure if this makes me a good, adaptable and resilient traveler or a stupid one, but my latest weekend in Strasbourg took the more un-planned route and it was one of my best trips away yet.

We arrived in Strasbourg late Friday afternoon after a very pleasant 4 hour train ride through the western part of Switzerland. As a side note, Switzerland looks lovely and is going on must-see travel list. Our accommodation in Strasbourg was a great find: hostel prices with motel facilities as well as clean towels each day and only a 10 minute walk from the old town centre.

Friday was the warmest day we have had in a very long time and we were even able to eat dinner outside. Elle, Pippa and I went to an Italian restaurant where we met some of Elle’s friends and fellow language assistants in Strasbourg. I ordered a mushroom and sun-dried tomato risotto. It was creamy yet not overly rich and of a far more manageable portion size than the whole pizza that we so regularly end up with in Italian restaurants here.

Saturday morning we woke to a slightly overcast and cooler day but this did not deter us. We set off to find breakfast/lunch, or whatever meal we were currently due; the best holidays are always when they follow a trail of delicious meals rather than tourist sights. We walked around the old town stumbling across markets of every kind and squares of every size. The architecture was beautiful again; I am beginning to very much like the Germanic style. We found a quirky little side street pub with a french waiter wearing a kilt. For the very reasonable price of €5.90 I had une quiche lorraine avec salade et une orangina.

Cathedral and really really old restaurant...

One of many squares and courtyards

In the afternoon we bought pretzel shaped sugar doughnuts and ate them by the river as we waited to board our boat tour. The boat tour began with interesting and amusing information on the history of Strasbourg and the various events that had occurred on and by the river Ill over the centuries. We were told of the apparently humane change in torture techniques at one bridge. The House of Regret where people about to be hung could get a meal and a glass of wine on their last night was pointed out, as well as former brothels turned war-time barracks turned boarding school. We went through two locks, all the while the river over looked by blossom trees with fresh green tips. However, the dull and, at times incomprehensible, Irish accent of the narrator seemed to run out of interesting and relevant information.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around; a stroll through the Cathedral; two different encounters with Charlie Chaplin street performers; a rose-sculpted Gelato here and a hot chocolate there. It was all quite lovely, the perfect way to be a tourist I feel.

A night out is very hard to come by here in Bonneville so we decided to treat ourselves in Strasbourg. We started off our night at a Mexican themed club on a boat and finished in a converted cellar fittingly called Underground Club. The best part of the night was walking home in the wee hours of the morning through the deserted streets of Strasbourg playing camera wars and generally seeing who could make the biggest fool of himself.

A brief stop for postcards and we were back on a train early Sunday afternoon. I absolutely loved Strasbourg. It has a wonderful feel about it that I can’t quite describe but I think I would be quite happy to live there… No, I don’t think the nomadic traveler is quite me.

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I realised that I have not written about any delightful pastries of late. I conveniently came to this realisation as I walked past the boulangerie… Some super human force sucked me in and, in the name of cultural and gastronomic research, I bought a millefeuille.

Also I have a tingle in my throat, spring daffodils are here, I have 4 weeks left of work, it is pay day next week and a multitude of other excuses, all warranting a millefeuille.

Golden flaky pastry, butter yellow custard, pastry, custard, pastry and sweet swirled icing. A thousand leaves of happiness, of ambrosial delight, of sickly goodness. Is it a bit much?

You have to be prepared when eating a millefeuille. Don’t expect to look dainty and delicate gently nibbling at your pastry. In my books, a millefeuille is not nibbling material, it is messy and you must be prepared to catch globules of custard in your hand and pastry flakes on your chin.

There is a strategy here. You will need a big plate and a sharp knife. Chop the millefeuille in half. This is not so you can save half for later, what kind of wimp are you?

As you lightly bite down on the pastry, the custard will begin to squirt out. At this stage, move quickly to the side and clean up those messy edges. Alternate this action from side to side, trying to take time to chew in between mouthfuls.

Take a short break in between halves, maybe have a sip of water, or wipe the pastry from your front (see big plate above.) Savor the cream and the crunch and the slightly cloying icing with the mellow custard. Now it is time for part two. Devour it wholeheartedly, do not worry, the slightly ill feeling will pass…

I sometimes see sparrow-like women eating these in the salon de thé with a tiny cake fork and I wonder how they do it. Maybe it is genetically encoded and if I lived in France long enough I would develop the same poise and skill. But, I ask myself, are they having as much fun? Are they feeling the rush that all too soon the pastry could end up on the floor?

A millefeuille is probably my favourite item in the patissier’s cabinet, partly for the taste, but mostly for the fun of eating it. For fear of extradition from France, I would never eat a millefeuille in public. Instead, I confess, I have become a closeted millefeuille eater.

I am sure there is a group for that.

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Eat, Drink, Ski

Ma aventure française has been full of “double take” moments. Moments when I seem to stop what I am doing, step outside of myself for a minute and wonder how I possibly came to be where I am.

These moments occur without warning and in the strangest of circumstances. Walking through the streets of Bonneville, baguette in hand, watching the old men gossip on benches in the town square, I double take. Spending New Year’s Eve in an Irish pub in Barcelona with Australians and French, I double take. Eating confit du canard on the foot-path terrace of a Parisian restaurant, I double take. Running alone through Bonneville late at night during the first snow fall with my face to the heavens, I double take. Drinking vin chaud at 9p.m in a restaurant in the Austrian alps, preparing myself to go whizzing down the slopes, I double take.

These moments often occur in a heart beat, sometimes during the most mundane of situations, but they are the moments that make this experience so special.

So when I spend an entire weekend marveling at everything I am doing, everything I see, everything I eat, I know it is going to be a weekend I remember.

Our weekend began at 4.30 on Saturday morning, eating the first of many muesli bars and walking through the dark to the ski club bus. Four hours and a coffee croissant break later we arrived in a tiny village at the base of the mountain in the Alpe d’Huez resort.

We followed a little muddy path, across a rickety bridge, skis over our shoulders, to the chair lift at the bottom of the village. On the slopes the weather was worse than we expected: rain, snow, -6 degrees and the thickest fog I have ever seen. Or failed to see: we had no idea of the enormity of Alpe d’Huez or of the stunning views that were beyond the cloud cover. We skied for most of the day, taking whatever pistes we seemed to stumble upon and hoping that no major obstacles were more than 10 metres in front.

Saturday evening we bonded with the gentlemen of the ski club as we watched the rugby: England vs. Ireland and Wales vs. France. Rugby conversation led to the All Blacks which led to our loss against France at the last World Cup. I felt like a fraud as I tried to defend them, realising I could more successfully contribute to a conversation rating their good looks rather than their game scores.

We wined and dined on raclette and côte du rhône with boiled potatoes, salad and a charcuterie platter. It was the perfect meal to end a day skiing: rustic, homely and so very french. In a wooden chalet in a remote mountain village in France scraping creamy, golden raclette off the heated round and with crème brûlée for dessert this was definitely a double take moment. Though, more than one person commented after the meal how much raclette “les anglaises” had eaten.

Before...

After....

Later that evening we played Foosball and partook in a rum tasting… When I was poured a tasting glass of ginger rum I decided to call it a night.

noix de coco, vanille, citron, gingembre, canelle, piment et banane...

Sunday morning we woke to clean, clear skies and once on the slopes I could not believe what we had been missing out on. The views were simply spectacular. Sunday was most probably my last day skiing for a very long time and it was not a wasted day. The snow was better and I went higher and faster than I have ever skied before. 3330 metres higher to be exact. And the only way down from such heights is a black run, the highest slope grade in Europe. What a way to finish my first season skiing.

From the top of Pic Blanc 3330m

We piled back on the bus Sunday evening, aching and tired and desperately wanting to be out of ski clothes. Less than an hour into our journey we stopped for une petite pause. Pulled from the back of the bus came 2 huge brown paper bags of baguettes, platters of charcuterie, whole rounds of reblochon, comte et tomme, red and white vin de savoie, genepi liqueur and, eventually, out came the rum… Food just seems to appear here in France. I feel I will not be judged for planning my daily schedule around meal times or finishing breakfast and immediately thinking what I can make for lunch. Maybe I am more of a francophile than I realise…

A crazy, unbelievable, wonderful weekend! We left Alpe d’Huez with goggle tan marks and sore stomach muscles from laughing. With only a few weekends left in this part of the world I am so glad I got to spend one of them at Alpe d’Huez.

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It is always slightly unnerving to arrive in a new place in the dark. My mind never tries to fill in the blanks or create an overall picture from the sounds, smells and vaguely street-lit sights; a blank canvas for the morning light.

And what a morning sight it was! I woke up in Innsbruck (capital of the Tirol region in Austria) last Sunday morning for the first of six days of perpetual sunshine, an alpine skyline and beautiful buildings, that, dare I say it, rival Paris.

Most ski Sundays here in Bonneville involve getting up at 6.30, throwing together a ham sandwich and eating a boring bowl of oatmeal: by Sunday my fruit supply generally consists of one bullet hard kiwifruit and a lemon. Ski days in Innsbruck are a much more leisurely affair. Wake up at 7.15, stroll to hotel restaurant for breakfast, sling your skis over your shoulder (like a pro) and hop on a bus at the perfectly reasonable hour of 9a.m.

And the breakfasts, oh, the breakfasts! Eggs, bacon, tea, toast, yoghurt, fresh tropical fruit, croissants, doughnuts, ham, cheese, pickles, juice, coffee, cereal, nuts, seeds, fresh bread and the best bircher muesli I have ever tasted. I was in breakfast heaven…

Our first day we headed to a resort called Schlick 2000. The variety of pistes was somewhat lacking, but for a first day it wasn’t too bad. The real adventure was getting home. Not wanting to risk pulled muscles and broken bones on the first day, we left the slopes early and went to find a bus stop. Instead we found a tram station and after waiting on the tram for 45 minutes we wove through the countryside of Innsbruck, at times, appearing to only service a horse stable.

hot chocolate and apfelstrudel break at Schlick!

Day two Elle and I, fueled by a fantastic breakfast, took the bus to Axamer Lizum. Day two was Monday and the day I discovered the wonders of week day skiing: empty slopes and no queues. Bliss. We found the snow better than the previous day and the views still offered something spectacular. Lunch was an interesting meal: meatloaf which was really large slices of luncheon ham, potato salad and mustard sauce… From our lunch time loungers we had a wonderful view, possibly one of my favourites of the trip, of a bright red cable car traveling above the mountains.

After two nights of Italian we were all keen to sample the local Tirolean delicacies. We found a large, rambling, medieval tavern only metres from our hotel. I felt there should have been jesters dancing in one corner and the tables adorned with pigs heads and barrels of wine. I ordered roast pork in an onion, carrot and beer sauce served with sauerkraut and a pretzel dumpling. The standout piece here was not the perfectly cooked pork, or the hearty sauce, or even the Austrian red wine, it was the pretzel dumpling. I have decided that this really is the only form in which a dumpling can be eaten.

The lovely thing about not staying in a ski resort with the mountains directly at the back door of the hotel is that you can see a different resort everyday. Our third day we headed to the nearest resort just 20 minutes out of Innsbruck called Patscherkofel. This mountain was slightly unusual as, while not very high, the summit offered more routes for walkers than pistes for skiers. In the name of research, we decided to take the tiny one-man bucket lift to the very top and ski down a walking route. This track was not to everyone’s liking as it was snow-plough all the way but, the views! “Breathtaking” is a rather stereotypical, clichéd word to describe a vista but I really am at a lost to describe it in any other way. It was like being on top of the world: layer upon layer of mountains stretching away into the distance, clear blue skies and green valleys below.

2248 metres

Across Europe at the moment is Carnival week: saying good-bye to winter and hello to spring. So coming off the mountain on Tuesday afternoon we were greeted by fairies, witches, buzzy bees, silly string, hippies and caterpillars. The revelers had taken over Innsbruck and when we returned to our Tirolean tavern again that night we were seated in a separate smaller dining  hall. The atmosphere was not amazing, nor the service particularly outstanding but my meal did not disappoint. Wild game ragout in a mushroom, celery and carrot sauce with cranberry jelly and homemade spinach spaetzle noodles. With wonderful colours and a sweet cranberry sauce in its own cracker cup, this meal was bright enough to distract me from my fellow diners asking for brown sauce, ketchup and vinegar to go with their steak frites.

Topfenstrudel mit Sahne

Loosely translated as cheesecake on the menu, this dessert may have won over the dumplings for crowning delight of this restaurant. Creamy, yet light and tangy, almost savoury with the occasional hidden raisin, it was far from the traditional cheesecake.

Day three was a long day, a day where we spent about as much time on the slopes as we did in a bus there and back. And there and back again. For those of you who know me well, no, I did not leave my skis behind, or my boots. We returned to Kuhtai resort for a bit of tobogganing by moonlight.We arrived at the resort, a thin crescent moon hovering above the mountains, and piled into jeeps.We were driven halfway up the slope to a restaurant where we quickly downed a plastic glass, or two, of vin chaud, then after a brief left-right-brake lesson off we went! I’d like to say I could feel the wind in my hair and the rushing noise of smooth wood on snow. But, always safety conscious, I was wearing my helmet and my toboggan had a tendancy to veer to the right… But 2.5km of pure adrenalin nonetheless.

The skiing during the day was well worth the hour and a quarter trip: the pistes were long, expansive and challenging. As always, the view was incredible. Even after living surrounded by mountains for 6 months it is a sight I don’t think I will ever get over.

Kuhtai Resort

Lunch was also worth mentioning. (Isn’t it always?) Two potato and herbed cream cheese rostis buried under layers of smoked salmon. I would ski everyday if this was always on offer.

Erdäpfelröstikrapfen gefüllt mit kräuterfrischkäse dazu norwegischer Räucherlachs...

Thursday we took a break from skiing to see what the city of Innsbruck had on offer. A star attraction of this beautiful city is the Golden Roof: small and unimposing but impressive nonetheless, this building houses a history museum of Innsbruck and the Tirolean region. I found the history of the Golden Roof building the most interesting, especially the photos of the street during WWII.

The Golden Roof today

The Golden Roof WWII

With a keen eye for gastronomic delights, I had noticed an indoor market hall on our first day in Innsbruck. When I think of indoor market halls I think of what les Halles in Paris would have been like in its hay day. I was hoping for complete sensory overload: bright, clashing colours of flowers and fruit; stall owners and customers bartering and jeering; the overpowering scent of strong cheeses, fresh fish and home cured meats. Vibrant, bustling and slightly jarring to the senses. The Innsbruck market did not play along with my fantasy but the stalls were beautifully presented and the produce was vast, colourful and fresh.

During the afternoon we took a sightseeing bus to the base of a hill overlooking Innsbruck. At the top of the hill is the famous Bergisel ski jump centre built in 1964 when Innsbruck hosted the Winter Olympics. The tower was completely redesigned in the early 2000s and is now much more of a tourist attraction than a concrete ramp. The ramp is dauntingly steep and how anyone could bring themselves to fly off the end I don’t know. Personally, I’d prefer to sit in the restaurant overlooking Innsbruck eating pretzels and drinking vin chaud, which is exactly what we did!

A fine Austrian lunch...

Thursday evening we thought why not try Cantonese banquet in Austria? This was Chinese like I had never had it before: Chinese take-away in a Styrofoam container does not even begin to compare. A multitude of flavours reached the palate-not just sweet and sour or soy sauce. At the end of the meal, the waitress bought out a tiny tea tray with 6 miniature tea cups full of hot liqueur. Watered down port is the closest we came to identifying this liquid.

Friday we woke up, the weariness of 4 days skiing beginning to register in our muscles. Today we were heading to the very end of the valley: Stubaier Gletscher. This was a ski resort like nothing I had ever seen before, like a shopping mall on the slopes. The resort was magnificent with kilometres upon kilometres of wide, well snow covered pistes. Our very last run for the day was about 100 metres wide with a gentle slope in the cradle between two mountains-a truly great way to end the week.

Stubaier Gletscher

Saturday morning we were up early for our very last breakfast. I was tempted to ask the chef for the secret of the bircher muesli but, instead we stole ham rolls… Innsbruck is a wonderful city where history, sport and art all come together under a stunning mountain backdrop.

Thank you Elle, Julie and Phil for taking me on your wonderful holiday.

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My oven and I are becoming one. It is a beautiful experience. One soul. One mind. One stomach.

My oven and I did not get off to a great start. My cakes sank. Things were burnt. Things were still cooking at 11 o’clock at night. I hated that I had to let my jaw hang open like a drooling dog whenever I changed the position of the rack otherwise my teeth would grind horribly at the noise. I had to Google oven symbols because they are different in France, who knew?

But, now, Oven and I are firm friends. When everyone leaves Bonneville, when it’s cold and rainy outside and when I have already watched every episode of Glee I possibly can, I know Oven will always be there. Strong and dependable. Maybe ovens are a bit like maps, you just have to learn how to read them. (A vague idea of where you are headed helps too.)

Last night, Oven, you truly out did yourself.

Determined not to spend this week alone with only a kitchen appliance for conversation, I decided that every day I must venture out into Bonneville and partake in actual human interaction. So, yesterday I dusted off 2000 Recettes de la Cuisine Française and chose a simple recipe for a turkey fillet roasted with potatoes, onions and apples.

I think I may have found true balance in my life: shopping at the organic food store for tofu and almonds, swinging by the boulangerie for a pain aux céréales and then directly to the Maison de Fromage for a rather sizeable chunk of the best creamy goat’s cheese I have ever tasted and a turkey fillet. The one thing that will not be in balance soon will be my bank account…

With the simplest of seasonings, olive oil, salt and pepper, I roasted my turkey fillet in a bed of cubed potatoes and onions, later adding slices of apple. The turkey came out cooked to perfection: lightly crispy on top, tender and succulent inside.

escalope de dinde aux pommes

I had a minor faux pas with the bottle of Beaujolais I had bought… After a week or so where luxuries like wine and cheese were very much out of reach, I had forgotten that I was currently not in possession of a bottle opener. Reminiscing of picnics in the park and being 16 all over again, the only thing to do when faced with a challenge of this sort is to push the cork into bottle… Next thing I know my kitchen walls are dripping a delicate shade of red.

Don't worry, not this much wine was wasted!

And much later, after having thoroughly enjoyed my dinner, cleaned my kitchen walls and had a private wine tasting in front of a Glee re-run, I realised that I had spent all evening looking like this:

The joys of living alone, no-one to tell you have dried red wine on your forehead!

Thankfully, Oven doesn’t judge…

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