Monday, May 04, 2009

(At least the food and drink of) France, in a nutshell

Sorry it's been so long since we posted any kind of update. For a tiny bit we had the excuse of not having any Internet connectivity, but that was only for 3 days, and nearly a week ago. We've just been busy enough that it's been hard to find the time to blog, even with carrying our own mini laptop around.

I'm writing this a bit more than 2 weeks into our 3 week vacation, sitting in the train station in Avignon (in Provence), waiting for a train to Brussels, and then on to Bruges. (Hopefully I won't repeat too much of anything Lorien already said. I can't get the wifi in the train station to work, so I can't first read through the previous blog posting.) I'm looking forward to our mini break in Belgium, although I am concerned that a few days outside of France will interrupt the progress that I've made in picking up French (albeit still with snippets where bits of Spanish continue to come forth from me without me even realizing it).

This might have been more coherent if I had been blogging as we were going along, so I apologize in advance if this ends up coming out as a disorganized stream of consciousness. We were pondering at the other extreme what it would be like to Twitter as we went along, but silly little 140 or character less postings that may have seemed amusing to us at the time (like "Sur le pont d'Avignon") might lose sense out of context.

As I believe Lorien already mentioned, our time in Paris was fun, full of plenty of croissants, pleasant weather, bicycling around with Velib, a decent amount of museum hopping, and a fair degree of success at fighting jetlag. I'm a bit of sucker for Impressionist painting and really enjoyed our visit to Musee d'Orsay. We had made a brief visit during our whirlwind pair of Paris stopovers in transit to and from the Middle East back in Fall 2007, but this time we had the opportunity to come back at a much more relaxed pace. We also downloaded a few free audioguides in mp3 from the Rick Steves website, and while we didn't simply 100% follow that tour, it was a useful way of putting the work in context and learning a bit that wouldn't have been obvious just on our own. We had earlier viewed a small portion of the vast amount of art that the Louvre has to offer, also accompanied by a free Rick Steves audioguide. As the Louvre ends where Orsay begins, this bit of museum hopping was in rough chronological order. Too bad we didn't have the time to continue the journey into more modern works -- but I guess that leaves something for next time. Further along the Impressionist theme, we also stopped by the Orangerie museum, which (as well as having other works), has two large elliptical rooms built especially for displaying a series of huge Monet water lillies paintings. But wait, there's more... on our final swing through Paris later this week we plan a day trip out to Giverny, where Monet lived, to see the gardens that inspired many of his paintings, as well as to see a Monet exhibition that just opened up this week.

... on the train now, just finished up with a bit of lunch. Words of wisdom -- don't try to make a salad on a train. Ok, maybe that should be obvious, but the salad was just part of what was leftover from a Saturday evening picnic, and wasn't originally intended for the train. I guess we concentrated on polishing off the bottle of wine at that picnic more than getting to all of our planned courses. It only ended up being a minor catastrophe as a mobile lunch. But still tasty.

Sitting here now watching the French countryside go by. This is just so much more pleasant than flying. Why can't there be decent inter city rail service in the US? Or decent pubic transit? (NYC excluded, that is.) But I digress.

After Paris, we took a train to Dijon, then a local to Beaune, and spent three days bicycling in Burgundy. This was self guided bicycle touring -- the idea is that your hotels (and some of your meals) are prearranged, and the tour company takes your luggage from one city to the next. You're given a map, and a suggested route, and suggestions for stops, but you're basically on your own to get to your destination, at whatever pace you want to set. It was really the perfect arrangement for us, especially in an area in which we were initially totally unfamiliar, and trying to do everything completely on our own may have been a bit daunting.

I think the most fascinating part of our visit to Burgundy for me was discovering its wines. Back when I had grandiose plans for blogging on a more continuous basis, I was going to call the corresponding posting, Like the whites, love the reds. Back when I first started to drink wine in college (I won't count shots of Manishewitz or the like from Bar Mitzvahs), I pretty much stuck to whites. I'm not sure if that's because that's mostly what there is in the Finger Lakes (upstate NY) region, because a drinkable bottle of white is often cheaper than a drinkable bottle of red, because I hadn't developed enough of a palette for wine yet, or maybe some combination of all of these. But somewhere along the way (and I really don't consciously remember this happening), the situation completely reversed itself. Back home, with the exception of sweet white wines that we pair with Thai and other Asian foods, we basically stick to red wines. My general opinion of California white wines has been that they're usually just not that flavorful, not that interesting, and if they're Chardonnay, they probably taste mostly like oak.

So what a wonderful surprise to discover in Burgundy (and this I guess actually started with a glass of Chablis in Paris) that there are all of these wonderful white wines, full of flavor, and distinct from each other. But as I hinted above, what really captured me was the red wines. I feel like I'm on the verge of sounding like some snobby wine geek any time I try to describe wine verbally, but some of the wines were just truly amazing, with kind of an earthiness and muskiness and full of subtlety -- very different from the full bodied red wines we typically drink in California. Even this light wine that we got for a picnic (which at 6.50 euros, about $8 or $9, is the best value wine I've ever had) was so full of character. I typically think of a light wine as being fruity, but this still had a bunch of complexity; it was just somehow very easy drinking that made it perfect for a stop while biking.

Another aspect that's different -- we're used to thinking about a wine primarily in terms of what type of grape it is. But in Burgundy, it's pretty much all the same grapes -- Pinot Noir for red, Chardonnay for white. And the land is divided into ridiculously small geographic regions (like hundreds of them in a few square kilometers around a town), and the conventional wisdom is that it's the land (the terroir, if we want to get precise in our terminology) that the gives the wine its distinct characteristics.

I wish we could bring more of it home, although there are various logistical difficulties involved. I've been a little bit on a quest to get a full bottle of this one particular wine that we had a half bottle of at dinner one night (I think it's the best red wine I've ever had), but unfortunately I'm somewhat resigned by now to the extreme likelihood that that's just not going to happen.

Ok, I've clearly rambled on way too long about Burgundian wine. Biking in the countryside was quite nice too. We didn't just spend our entire time drinking. Although we demonstrated that drinking and cycling don't have to be mutually exclusive, especially when the terrain is relatively flat.

Following Burgundy, we rented a car and drove up into the Jura, an area nearby and at a slightly lower elevation than the French Alps. We didn't have too much planned there in the way of activities -- saw the countryside a bit (being able to cover more of an area by car), we went hiking a bit, stopped by the town of Arbois for a bit. For our lodging, we were staying on the property of a couple (Crystelle and Pascal) who run a dairy farm in a very small village and rent out some rooms to tourists. Crystelle doesn't speak any English, and although she claims that Pascal does in theory, I'm pretty sure that the only English words we heard him speak during our entire time there were "Yes we can!" Lorien is managing to impress people with her relative competence in French, and I'm managing to pick things up at a decent rate. Some of it may be coming back from the one year of French I had in 6th grade. I'm not sure how much knowing some Spanish helps or hurts. On one hand, there are lots of similarities, although I think going from French to Spanish (like Lorien did when we were in Mexico a few years back) is easier than the other way around. But on the other hand, I keep at times confusing Spanish and French and end up coming out with a sentence that's a bit of a mixture of the two. But people still generally get the gist of what I'm trying to say, even if I can't always understand the response that I get (thankfully I have Lorien to try to assist in that case.)

More new wine discoveries in the Jura, a type of aged white wine known as Vin Jaune ("yellow wine"). Rich and full of flavor and aroma, andunlike any other white wine I've ever had.

But with so much talk about wine, I've neglected to mention the food. It's been a little bit mixed. I'd say on average it's been good, with some of it being very, very good, and I don't think we've had anything that was really bad. Some of it (esp. in touristy areas in Paris) is a bit overpriced, but we've also had some very good food at fairly decent prices. Not too much of it has truly wowed me (although some of it has) -- I wonder if being around so much good food in the Bay area we've just gotten a bit spoiled, or I had too high expectations, or am I just starting to sound like a food snob now... My biggest issue with the food up until this point in the narration is just that in Burgundy andthe Jura it tended to be so heavy and so much meat. I can't understand how people in those areas don't get fat. It's wonderful as special occasion food, but eating it day after day was starting to get to be a bit much. And forget about the myth that French portions are supposed to be small... I think our one salvation was that every day from our arrival through Burgundy we were bicycling at least some, and then in the Jura we were walking and hiking a bit. But I finally got done in by the cheese. In Arbois we had a lunch that included fondue. Little did we know that for dinner that night (there was no choice in the menu on the dairy farm) the main course was fondue. And then, of course, following the main course is the cheese course (would you like cheese with your cheese?). That one day was a bit too much for me, and it took another full day for me to really recover.

Which brings us to Provence. After the Jura we drove down south. Since we hadn't really made it up into the Alps, we decided to take a somewhat indirect route that first headed east a bit along the border with Switzerland, hoping to get a view of Mount Blanc. That didn't really work out so well, since we ended up driving into a snowstorm, which although was somewhat pretty in and of itself, somewhat destroyed the possibility of any panoramic vistas. And, it also illustrated the risk of driving into the mountains without a weather forecast, since we didn't have internet access in the Jura. (And I was mildly worried about how well our rental car would handle in the snow.) But we made it out of the storm without too much trouble, and by the end of the day we were in the warmth (almost heat) and sunshine of Provence.

We spent 4 full days (5 nights) in Provence. We stayed in St. Remy de Provence (a small city a little south of Avigon) and used it as a basis to explore the area. We saw various Roman ruins, midaeval cathedrals, pink flamingos (real ones), charming villages, wandered around a bit with no particular purpose, and had some wonderful food (and more good wine) in an area where they seem to recognize that food also consists of fresh fruits and vegetables and isn't limited to meat and cheese and potatoes. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, and like I said above, we did have some very good food before Provence. But Provence felt more like the kind of food that we can eat every day. Perhaps it's also because it's more familiar. The food is more similar to what we're used to eating, the red wines I think were more similar to Caliornia reds (although the crisp white wines were yet another new treat), and even the somewhat Mediteranean climate where we stayed (which was a bit inland from the sea) was somewhat similar to home, although it gets both quite a bit colder in the winter and quite a bit hotter in the summer in Provence.

I worry that reading over what I fear has become way too verbose of a monologue will have little to say that isn't related to food or drink. Not all of our time has been occupied with that. Although admittedly it is a major focus of ours, and we did plan things that way. Perhaps I'll fill in other non gastronomic details later in other postings. And there's more room for that when captioning pictures. (Full sets of pictures will be online following our trip. I'm not sure whether we'll get around to posting any highlights in this blog.) But Lorien is nearing the end of her book and perhaps I should take the opportunity to end this posting and switch from writing to reading now that I've chronologically caught up with the present. We've got numerous books with us, but I don't think I've yet gotten past the preface of one. Guidebooks, phrasebooks, and either our French dictionary or French grammar book don't really count.

So all in all we've been having a wonderful time. Keeping fairly busy, although I think we've been keeping things to a reasonable pace so that we're still having plenty of time to just relax and enjoy our vacation (the focus on food and wine clearly is helping with that). In general the people have been extremely friendly, and in general the weather has been quite nice. Other than a bit in Paris, and a bit over the May 1 holiday weekend we have experienced very few crowds and almost no other North Americans. It's definitely not yet peak tourist season -- I think we've picked a very good time to visit.

So it's on to Belgium for a few days, with an accompanying temporary switch from wine to beer. And further exploration of chocolate. :)