Musings

In the Hot Air Balloon


Well. I don’t even know where to start. It’s been more than a year since last I wrote, and so much has happened, but I didn’t tell you about it because the wanderings were playground related and not museums or historical sites, the sitings were mostly diaper changes and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and the tastings were composed of steamed carrots and just a lot of burrito bowls. Yes, we had a baby 17 months ago. And it’s just been everything. Like, all the things. It’s so much harder and more wonderful than you think and yada yada, all the clichés are true. So now instead of in a sidecar and motorcycle,  I imagine us all floating together from place to place above the earth in a hot air balloon as a little family of three! 

Since we left Paris oh, wow, about 2 years ago, we’ve lived in Salem, Ma and Cambridge, MA, which I will have little bits to share about, but now we’re back in France for the next several years, in Tarbes which is in the Pyrenees Mountains in the south west. I’m a stranger once more and again everything has a veil over it which I feel the need to lift, peek under, and then tell you all about. Writing this blog began as a way for me to answer the question, from others and myself, “what are you doing here?”at a time when I was moving around the world, and also away from the most important passion of my life and the only career I had ever wanted. It seemed (and, in fact, was) very important to have a goal and purpose. Now, with a toddler, a little part of me walking around, my goal and purpose have never been more clear. And yet, from time to time, now that there’s a bit more breathing room, I hear a small voice inside asking, “but…what are you doing here?” And so here I am. I’m experiencing a culture through food (and sights, and also probably now a child’s eyes) and writing about it. Among other things. And so far, I’ve been here for 2 months and have not had a café gourmand yet, which is a serious travesty.  

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Tastings

Easiest Homemade Bread (Frenchman approved)

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When my husband and I first began dating, it did not take him long to request freshly-baked bread. Being French and having grown up there, he had grown accustomed to having a nice hunk next to his plate. In his non-baker mind, there was not that much difference between bread and the peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies with which I had won his heart (an exaggeration, but by how much, really, knowing what we know about hearts and stomachs?) I explained to him that there was an ocean of difference between most baked goods and YEASTED baked goods, the largest being, so I thought, that they must be kneaded for a long time, a task unwieldy without the most coveted of tools, a stand mixer. After a previous attempt at making my Mom’s pizza dough had required so much mixing and kneading by hand and turned out like cardboard anyway, I put all yeast doughs aside.  

The truth is I had been wishing for a shiny and beautiful KitchenAid Stand Mixer since I had been living on my own, roughly eight years. I wanted to make creamy creamy cheesecake and bread dough and pizza, cinnamon rolls, yeasted breakfast cakes, whole grain sandwich loaves, beautiful, crusty white boules, all kinds of deliciousness. But the dog-eared pages in magazines and cookbooks would have to wait until I was able to knead that dough correctly. I should have known that the promise of freshly baked bread would be too much for my husband (then boyfriend) and sure enough, several Christmases ago a shiny red KitchenAid was presented along with an unspoken request for “I can haz bread now?” And now I could indeed make bread! And cheesecake and cinnamon rolls. And lo, it was good. But not quite perfect, because after making dozens of different bread recipes, they all kind of fell flat, none was a keeper. And now, dear reader, the joke is on me, because we have found a winner, a bread that I now make weekly that is delicious and versatile and craggy and crispy, and gets compliments every time! And it does not require a single knead! It is the easiest thing in the world and has 4 ingredients which you almost probably currently have. The only drawback is that you need a bit of foresight, you have to begin the recipe the day before you want to enjoy it. You may have heard of the recipe, by Jim Lahey from the Sullivan Street Bakery and originally published in the New York Times, and then picked up by all blogs everywhere and Pinterest. In the original recipe, the bread is baked in a pre-heated metal casserole with a lid, like a Le Creuset. Not having one of those (it’s next on my coveted list) I use a pre-heated, lidless cast-iron pan, which works perfectly. I have also baked it on a cold sheet pan, and it was still delicious, if not quite as crusty. If you do have a lidded casserole and want to use it, follow the recipe as is, following the direction of when to remove the lid. 

  • 3 cups all purpose flour (can replace with up to 1 cup whole wheat flour)
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast or 1/3 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 5/8 cups of water (this is an annoying amount, and I usually fill my pyrex measuring cup to a bit less than 1 2/3 and all is fine)

Rough, craggy dough just after mixing

1. In a large bowl, mix the first three ingredients and then add the water. Mix again, incorporating the ingredients. It will be sticky and not quite fully mixed together, as in the photo above. Don’t worry. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature* for 12-18 hours. I go for the longer side, mixing it up sometime after dinner and continuing the next steps around 1 or 2 the next day. 

Risen, fermenty dough after 18 hours

2. The dough will be now be super wet and bubbly. Flour a silpat or piece of parchment and turn the dough out onto it, using fingers to release the yeasty tentacles. Sprinkle a little more flour, just enough so that it doesn’t stick to everything, and fold it on itself a few times. Cover with plastic wrap (maybe the same that you covered the bowl with) and let it rest for 15 minutes. You can also do this on a floured work surface, but I find putting it on something helps to move it later on.

3. Gently cajole the dough into a roundish shape, placing any seams you might end up with down on the silpat or surface. Dust with flour, cornmeal or wheat bran (I always use flour). Cover with a flour-dusted cotton kitchen towel. Let rise for another 2 hours, or until it has roughly doubled in size and the dough doesn’t spring back when poked.

Turned out and formed

4. Preheat the oven and your 6-8 quart cast-iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic cooking vessel to 450 degrees. Carefully remove the pot or pan. Lift the silpat, parchment or towel and use it to flip the round dough ball into the pot. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like at this point. If you just have a baking sheet, just flip the dough onto that, a little cornmeal would help it not to stick. Cover with a lid if you have one and replace the pot in the oven.

5. Since I don’t have a cover, I create steam in the oven by using a spray bottle filled with water and spraying the bottom of the oven at the beginning and about halfway through cooking. This helps form a nice crust.

6. Bake 30 minutes. Remove the lid, if using, and bake up to 15 more minutes. If not using a lid, I find 5 or 10 extra minutes is perfect for getting a golden brown crust. Bread should also make hollow sound when you knock on it. Cool on a rack before enjoying.

*Lahey recommends 70 degrees, but it is winter and my apartment is significantly not that right now, particularly at night, and the bread is still good! It’s pretty fool-proof.

 

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Challenge:Accepted!

Around Paris in 20 Arrondissements

 

Paris proper is made up of 20 areas, called arrondissements municipaux, or most commonly just arrondissements. Administrative districts, they were established in 1860, redefining older divisions. Beginning with the 1st arrondissement in the center, right around Notre Dame, they spiral numerically like a snail’s shell outwards towards the original walls of the city. (This is a good map, although the site is in French.) Although they are not really neighborhoods (the true neighborhoods cross over the lines), they do have definite vibes to them. An address will always include which arrondissement it’s in, a very useful tool for figuring out whether something is just too far away. Also, the last digit(s) of a zip code are the arrondissement. Anecdotally, Parisians have been known to frequent just a few areas, usually the ones around where they work and live, and rarely, if ever, set foot in others, because even with the good, if sprawling, Metro system, a trip from one corner of the city to another can take up to two hours. 

As part of Challenge:Accepted! I decided I wanted to visit every arrondissement in Paris. What better way to see all the unique and out-of-the-way corners of Paris? Taking photos of street signs seemed the obvious and charming way of documenting this. I was surprised that it took me 15 months, our entire trip to do it. I had expected to find myself in every arrondissement, either by wandering or being there for some purpose, and this was sometimes the case. Often I had already been to the arrondissement without knowing it. But occasionally, as with the 17th and 19th, I had to specifically make a trip. 

 

 

1st Arrondissement

Every visitor to Paris almost certainly steps foot in this area. The physical center of Paris, it is also home to several of the most popular attractions, including the Louvre, the Tuileries and extending into the Seine and part of the Île de la Cité, including the Conciergerie. Busy and touristy, with shops and restaurants and less housing. I found myself here a lot, either walking to or from other places, visiting sites, or just having a good wander. A must-visit, but a bit expensive to stay.

2nd Arrondissement

Just north of the 1st, the 2nd is another less residential district, focussed more on business, as well as upscale shopping. It’s commonly known as Bourse, which is the Paris Stock Exchange. It’s the smallest in actual area. I usually only found myself here when walking through it, say from the 9th, down to the Metro in the 1st.

3rd Arrondissement

Most travelers find themselves in the third at some point. It’s become a popular place to stay, as it’s so close to many sites, and it’s in the trendy Upper Marais district. Artsy and beautiful, it holds the Picasso Museum and the Carnavalet Museum, as well as lots of shopping, eating and drinking.

4th Arrondissement

This is an area packed with goodies, including the oldest part of the city, the Île Saint-Louis, which is a magical little island, at the very least necessary for (arguably) the best ice cream in Paris, the picturesque Place du Vosges and also the lower half of the Marais which was once home to the very well-heeled, then became the Jewish quarter of Paris, and now houses the Gay quarter as well. It’s very heavily trafficked for all of these reasons, yet feels more tranquil than the 1st. A great place for walking, shopping, and getting a great bagel or falafel. Also would be great to stay here, if you can afford it!

5th Arrondissement

Another must-see, this is the first district on the rive gauche, or left bank of the Seine, traditionally the home of artists and scholars. The Latin quarter is located here and The Sorbonne, as well as a ton of students and all of the attending restaurants, bars, bookstores, fast food and shopping.

6th Arrondissement

Also on the left bank, this area, Saint-Germain des Prés, is a popular area for locals and tourists alike and attracts people to the Jardin du Luxembourg, perfect for strolling, picnicking and pétanque.

7th Arrondissement

Mostly rich people, museums and monuments, the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée Rodin, Musée du Quai Branly and Tour Eiffel are here, it’s very much a must-go, and quite beautiful, although if you’ve been to all these hot spots once (or okay, twice) I wouldn’t necessarily go back.

8th Arrondissement

Back on the right bank, this neighborhood is great for shopping and sight-seeing, and that typical Paris style, as well as beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower. The Champs-Élysées, that famous (straight) avenue cuts straight through, and L’église de la Madeleine is a beautiful church. A popular neighborhood to stay in as well (though expensive).

9th Arrondissement

Known as the Opera district, for the giant, beautiful Opéra Garnier, I only ever found myself here walking, either from Montmartre above it back down to the 1 Metro line below it, or walking West along the Boulevard Haussman, where all the department stores are (one department store, Galleries Lafayette, is in the 9th itself.) Again, mostly residential, I found it depressing and touristy in a bad way. But that may have been the rain.

10th Arrondissement

The Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord – can be found here. This is a down-to-earth arrondissement with the Canal Saint-Martin, where Amelie went to skip rocks. A younger and slightly bohemian element with lots of cafes, restaurants and bars.

11th Arrondissement

Commonly known as Bastille, for the famous building (that was actually torn down and is no longer there, so don’t go looking for it), this is a cool neighborhood, very residential, just east of the big 1,2,3,4 and west of the more bohemian 20th. Bordered on one side by the Boulevard Richard Lenoir with its giant market, and on the other with Père Lachaise cemetery, this is where I took French class, and where, my teacher informed us, Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis used to live until they broke up.

12th Arrondissement

I had walked through the 12th many times before without even knowing it, since it borders the Eastern edge of Paris, and Vincennes, where we lived, is on the other side. We often walked from Bastille through the 12th to Vincennes. The Promenade Plantée, an elevated walkway/park on what used to be train tracks, like the High Line but way before the High Line, also runs through here from Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes.

13th Arrondissement

This mostly residential and very multi-cultural area encompasses Chinatown. I came here to go to a large and well-stocked grocery store that was located in the Place d’Italie, looking for some specific sea salt for my family back home, but there’s not much else.

14th Arrondissement

This area holds most of what is known as Montparnasse, for the Boulevard Montparnasse. It also holds the Catacombs, a popular if macabre site for certain visitors, or ones who have seen the museums and the other usual things. As we venture further out from the center, all arrondissements become largely residential. This one has a younger feel because of the Cité Universitaire, plus plenty of bars and restaurants.

15th Arrondissement

The largest in size and population, it is understandably very diverse, bordering the Seine on one side and Montparnasse on the other. The Tour Montparnasse is actually located here (a large black tower, ugly to look at, but nice to look from). We came here to visit the Parc André Citroën, a unique park and botanical garden on the former site of a car factory.

16th Arrondissement

Located just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, this is another oft-touristed area. It spreads quite far to the West and bumps up against the Bois du Bologne on the periphery of the city. This is an area that attracts very wealthy people to live, such as politicians, businesspeople and the like.

17th Arrondissement

A largely residential district (and up-and-coming and desirable, from what I’ve read) I had to specifically make a trip here. Although this is a very typical Parisian neighborhood, there really isn’t much to see here and not a lot of original character.

18th Arrondissement

Contains the famous Montmartre, of artists and can-can dancers. All but the most staid tourists will find themselves here, perhaps to visit the Place du Tertre, home to artists, now home to portraitists waiting to draw you, the Moulin Rouge or, at the very least, Sacré-Coeur basilica with its stunning view of the city below. Touristy, and with some more seedy pockets, but still fun.

19th Arrondissement

Another out of the way area, at least for me, I came here on one of my last days in Paris, but I almost wish I had discovered the lovely Parc des Buttes-Chaumont sooner. Residential, multi-cultural and working class.

20th Arrondissement

A more out of the way area which still gets visitors because of the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the final resting place of many Parisians, as well as the most famous residents, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. This area, once very working class, is gentrifying a bit thanks to its affordability and strong culture.

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Tastings

Chocolate and churros

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If I was going to be a good food tourist in Madrid, I got the sense that I would need to seek out chocolate con churros, preferably for breakfast. We went to Chocolatería San Ginés , just off Puerta del Sol, near our apartment. They have been serving hot, thick, rich, melted drinking chocolate along with stacks of crispy, crunchy, fried doughnut-y churros for dipping since 1894, so it seemed a good place to start. Drinking chocolate has been enjoyed in Europe since the 17th century, after the explorer Cortes brought it back from the Americas (and then sweetened it significantly). Churros originated a few centuries before that, almost certainly in Europe, created either by Spanish goatherds or Portuguese travelers who had seen something similar in China, depending on who you ask. When drinking chocolate came around, it seemed as though churros had found their lifelong partners. Chocolatería San Ginés was smallish but airy, with a long marble bar, blue and white tiling, and plenty of small tables indoors and out. We found a seat and then went right to the counter to order. I’m not sure if you could even order something else, but we kept it simple. It was a delicious, if extreeeemely rich breakfast, suitable for the world explorer or Aztec royal in all of us.


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Tastings

Where to lunch in Madrid

I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I like to eat delicious, authentic food, and I’m usually on a bit of a budget. I also don’t necessarily want to have a “fancy” dining out experience more than once or twice. The rest of the time, I just want solid, casual food that the local people might enjoy. In Madrid, La Sanabresa, in the Cortes neighborhood, is just that. It ended up being our very favorite restaurant in Madrid, and we ate there no less than three times, but we have no record of ever having visited. We took no photos. This was partly because we were just hungry and the food was so good, and partly because, I’m going to be honest, it didn’t look like much. These are not your carefully plated, elegantly sauced plates. These are everyday, basic, traditional, and affordable foods, very well done.

In Madrid we often ended up having our large meal at lunch, because Guillaume was often very hungry after being in the archives all morning, and a satisfying meal was the perfect way to start an afternoon of sightseeing. Plus, we couldn’t quite adjust to eating dinner at (or after) 9 PM. (I am so, so old.) In the evening we would head back to the apartment, weary and foot-sore, and put together a quick salad, some delicious Spanish cheese and bread. Perfect. This particular restaurant we found doing a little internet search for a good lunch restaurant. And that is exactly what this is, although they are open for dinner as well. We, being hungry Americans, would turn up at 1:30 and there would be maybe one or two tables taken. By 2 it was packed and when we left, satisfied, there was a line of people waiting for a table. The first time we walked in the door and asked for a table for two. The very old-school, slightly harried waiter (who got only more harried as the lunch service went on) spread his arms and nodded his head indicating the lay of the dining room, and went about his business. We chose a nice table near the door, but cozy in a corner. There is one medium-sized dining room, slightly tackily decorated in pastels, with tablecloths and paper covers. The tables are quite close together, but nothing unusual for a big city. The large menu is separated into an à la carte section, and a large section of prix fixe menus, or menú del día, which didn’t really seem to change by the day. These five or so menus, with prices from about 10 euros to just over 20,  come with a starter, main course and dessert, as well as bread and water, juice or wine. The choices are plentiful for a prix fixe, with at least 10 or more in each price category, so there was no problem finding choices that hit the spot. It seemed maybe a bit gimmicky, and I didn’t do the math to see if it actually was a savings, but all the locals were ordering menus, and people seemed to keep coming back.

The first time we went I had a simple grilled asparagus which was heavily drizzled with amazing olive oil, sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and so, so good. For my main course I ordered roasted pork ribs with potatoes and fruit salad for dessert, which was good, but I should have gone with the crescents of fresh cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple that the regulars were getting, as the fruit salad was sitting in a bit too much juice. Guillaume had paella, which was good, but we definitely went in search of better paella elsewhere, and, garnering the instant admiration of the waiter, stewed tripe. He finished with an excellent, lightly sweet cheesecake with blueberry sauce. For our second meal I had the special salad (spoiler alert, not special, and really the only dud of our three meals), a nice, fresh grilled whole white fish and that great cheesecake that I was so jealous about. Guillaume had Russian salad, which is essentially potato salad, the pork ribs that HE was so jealous about, and cheesecake. The third time I got that asparagus again, escalope de jambon (cordon bleu, essentially), and an almond cake that was lovely. Guillaume got paella again, tripe again and you guessed it, cheesecake, again. The man likes what he likes. Simple, filling, authentic, and affordable, made traditionally and with, if not care, then at least love. We left happy, our pockets still full along with our stomachs, ready to explore Madrid.

 

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Tastings

Sólo un poco

I’ve always liked the theory behind tapas, in that you get to try several things, the tastebuds just whetted but never quite satiated. Tapas began as a little savory snack, hot or cold, that would accompany a caña, (a small glass of draft beer) or a glass of wine for free, filling the stomach a bit with the pre-meal drink. Usually a slice of ham, a plate of olives, a scoop of potato salad, or a small fried fish. Gradually, these became more complex and some places eventually started to charge for them, allowing you to choose from a selection that may be laid out on or under a glass bar. They are generally eaten while standing up, although there may be a few token tables. Some establishments though, are more like restaurants, with menus that allow you to choose a few small plates, and some larger plates of more traditional meals like stewed oxtail, and the tapas become more like a meal. If you want to really get crazy, you go out for the evening and eat and drink your way from bar to bar, this is called to tapear. Because Spaniards lunch around 2 and then don’t sit down to dinner until 10, 11 or later, a tapa or two can be a welcome filler.

There are several stories about the origin of tapas, both concerning King Alfonso X. In one, he insisted that tavern owners serve a bit of food with drinks so as to dissuade drunkenness. The other is that he ordered a sherry and, it being a windy day, the tavern owner lay a piece of ham on the glass to prevent dust from getting in. The King liked this “tapa”, or cover, so much that he asked for another. Others say that it simply developed as a way to keep fruit flies out of sweet sherry.

Our first tastes of tapas were these four that we found at the Mercado de San Miguel. A really cool concept, this is an old indoor market that fell into disuse that has been completely renovated into something like a Columbus Circle for food. Centrally located, we discovered it on our first day in Madrid, and had some of the best café con leche I have had in a long time at a stand called Café del Arte (a must after a 6 am flight from Paris). You can wander around the single-level market and purchase typical Spanish delicacies to enjoy right there, including coffee, desserts, wine, sherry and cocktails, sangria, and plenty of tapas. There is also a grocer, I guess for verisimilitude. This is an excellent idea in theory, and indeed the place was packed with tourists, and apparently some locals, enjoying local cuisine. I love the idea of grazing from place to place, picking a few things here, a few things there that entice and then grabbing a glass of something, finding a perch, and digging in and finding favorites. Unfortunately, the food was just not there, quality-wise. IMG_0717 Hello? This is a pickle sandwich. What is not to love? With a pickle filled with marinated tuna and red pepper, and olives and onions and two toothpicks holding it all together, I expected it to be salty, but delicious salty, flavorful salty. And it was just salty. Very disappointing. And hard to eat.IMG_0719When we sidled up to a stand with croquettes, little fried balls filled with cheese (also meat, fish or other things) I thought “What could go wrong?” We even added some little pig-in-blanket type guys. But then the lady put them, on their little plastic plate, in the microwave. Not long enough for them to even get melty in the middle, just long enough to get sad.IMG_0720These are pintxos, a Basque variation on tapas which usually involves things eaten on bread, like a canapé, with a toothpick (pincho) stuck through it. They looked super interesting; little pieces of brown bread with slices of octopus or cheese, pepper and chorizo. They were oh-so bad. They even look like they’ve been sitting around a bit.

DSC03070 This is just for you to see, I was not brave enough to try them. They are angulas, tiny baby eels, a super popular treat in Spain. Apparently they are endangered. Also apparently, these (and the many other versions we saw) may be fake, made out of the same substance as fake crab, since real angulas can be 50 euros a serving. DSC02907 After that fairly terrible experience, we decided to go somewhere they might put a bit more thought into the food. Well hello, dark, Spanish looking tapas bar with bullfighting parephernalia on the walls! You will do!

DSC02900There we enjoyed a traditional tortilla, (delicious) and chorizo on bread (simple and yummy, not pictured).

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The special house tapas, which presumably changes daily, was some kind of mustardy fish paste on bread and smothered with potato sticks. It was very good.

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And then we tried one of their less tapa-y and more small plate-y dishes, braised “bull tile”, which came highly recommended by the waiter, and we assumed was bull tail.

DSC02967This tapa we had at another restaurant where we went to eat octopus. I had been wanting to try baccalao (cod) croquettes, since they are quite traditional, and we had that very bad experience with croquettes. These were great, freshly fried, soft and slightly sweet inside, even with the slightly hipster presentation (a wire “frying” basket lined with faux “New England” newsprint).

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Wanderings

If the espadrille fits…

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On our first day in Madrid, we left our rented apartment, turned a corner and came upon a long line of people snaking out of a building. I’m always curious about lines that form, and what is so worth waiting for, but during the day, in the excitement of a new city, I sort of forgot about it. Until we returned in the early evening and there was still a line, even longer. Every time we passed that corner, no matter what time of day, there was always a significant gaggle of people waiting. After a few days, my curiosity got the better of me and I noted the name of the shop to look up when we got home. It turned out that this shop is Casa Hernanz, a cordeleria and alpargateria, and basically the place to get alpargatas, which you may know as espadrilles, in Madrid. They make them traditionally, by hand, and they are also very affordable, just 8 euros for the simplest pairs. The shoes that are available are all up in the windows so that you can choose the espadrilles you’d like to try before you get inside and maybe take photos to show the sales people. Once you’ve made it past the line, you head straight to the counter and ask for what you’d like, and in what size (it’s a good idea to know your European size in Spanish) and they pull from the back. You can try them on and then choose your pairs. Casa Hernanz makes the more simple gatas, but they also carry trendier designs and fabric patterns made by a few other Spanish brands that also make the shoes traditionally. They are simple shoes (e.g. no cushy insoles, and some don’t even come with a designated left and right foot) but fun, colorful, perfect for summer, and a great souvenir to bring back from Spain! Casa Hernanz, at Calle de Toledo, 18, is open for most the the day, but they do close for a few hours in the afternoon for siesta.

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Sightings

Madrid

I have heard wonderful things about Spain, so I was not particularly surprised when Madrid turned out to be a beautiful, friendly, fun city. (Although, Barcelona was usually the city being mentioned, so that city must really be something.) I think there’s something about the combination of the wine or beer at every meal, the long siesta in the middle of the day, and I swear there is something to greeting everyone with “hola!” That final vowel just opens up the mouth and face and makes people instantly more relaxed and welcoming than, for example “bonjour”, ending in a closed, reserved mouth position (are my acting roots showing?) Whatever the reason, we had a wonderful time eating so much ham, drinking so much wine, and seeing amazing art and architecture. I’ll speak more about the food, including where and what we ate and enjoyed in later posts (tapas are a brilliant idea, aren’t they? Who ever just wants to eat one thing and just be done with it? I certainly don’t.) These are the sites and wanderings we particularly enjoyed in Madrid.

Prado Museum (Museo Nacional del Prado) One of the largest art collections in Europe, this beautiful museum, of a manageable size, houses a lot of religious art, including not just Spanish artists like El Greco, but lots of Dutch painters as well. Also there, many Goya paintings including The Second of May and the Third of May 1808, and the famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthy Delights.

Paseo del Prado A narrow, tree-lined park between two roads on the east side of the city, near the Prado museum. A nice walk. DSC02823

Plaza Mayor We found ourselves walking through this central square nearly every day, as we were staying nearby. Quite touristy and filled with lots of costumed characters (including an amusing fat spiderman) and probably avoidable restaurants and cafes, but with some nice architecture, statues and murals, it’s worth a look.

Rastro Flea Market This market, held on Sundays in a huge area of the Embajadores neighborhood. Large, and with an eclectic mixture of the new (art, t-shirts, leather bags, clothing, espadrilles, fabrics, souvenirs, underwear) and old (antiques of all sorts, mostly along the side streets). A little bit of everything, very enjoyable, even if we didn’t buy anything.

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia We visited this modern art museum mostly for Picasso’s Guernica, but really enjoyed all the art, as well as the setting.

Palacio Real de Madrid We didn’t go in the royal palace, but the outside, and the surrounding Plaza de Oriente (with several cafés for a coffee or glass of wine) and Sabatini Gardens were very beautiful.DSC03021

Almudena Cathedral This large cathedral, beside the palace, is a nice example of a newer cathedral, as it opened in 1993 (but took 100 years to build).

Other sites:

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Challenge:Accepted!

From the French Kitchen- Lavender Truffles

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When I worked at a chocolate shop in Boston, the number two question we would get, after “How do you work here and not eat everything?” was, “Which is your favorite?” And for me the answer was always the lavender truffle. I would always get a quizzical look, or a “really??” but many people trusted me, and I think many people were converted. A creamy ganache made with 67% dark chocolate infused with lavender, covered with a thin shell of chocolate and painted with a shiny purple luster powder for pizazz. So, so delicious, and made all the more wonderful by the fact that it is unusual (not hazelnut or caramel, which are so obvious) and unexpected (floral flavors tend to be very cloying and perfumey, not so here). When I left the chocolate shop to go to France, visions of creating my own lavender truffle were already dancing in my head.

If you are thinking that this recipe is not exactly from the French Kitchen, you are right. I am cheating a bit, but lavender is so french, right? And so is chocolate, so I’m going with it. I’ve made truffles before, notably as holiday gifts in huge batches of many different flavors, and they are really quite simple, if slightly intense and find-chocolate-in-odd-places-for-months messy. At the shop we didn’t make the chocolates, so I had no recipe to go on, but it turns out that a very basic truffle recipe, with quality ingredients and a touch of real lavender, tasted exactly like my favorites.

Lavender Truffles

  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (Good quality, in whatever percentage you prefer. I used Scharffen Berger 70% and found it perfect.)
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon dried lavender buds (Grow your own, or purchase in a store or online, just make sure they’re organic and edible! I found mine at a natural foods store in the bulk tea and spice section.)
  • 1-2 tablespoons good cocoa powder for rolling (optional if using chocolate coating)
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate for coating (optional if using cocoa for rolling)
  1. Heat heavy cream in a small, heavy saucepan until boiling. Add lavender. Remove from heat and let steep.
  2. In a double boiler (or a makeshift double boiler: a metal bowl or pot over a larger pot of boiling water) melt 6 ounces of chocolate.
  3. Remove from heat and add 2 more ounces of chocolate. Stir until melted.
  4. Place a strainer over the bowl or pot of chocolate and pour the cream mixture over it, catching the little bits of lavender. Discard lavender.
  5. Stir the cream and chocolate mixture slowly with a whisk, working from center to the edge, being careful not to beat any air in, until it is a smooth, creamy ganache.
  6. Let ganache come to room temperature and then refrigerate for about an hour. Check on it periodically; you want it to be perfectly scoopable but not too firm.
  7. Line a baking sheet, tray or pan with parchment or waxed paper.
  8. Using a spoon, scoop a bit of the ganache and roll in your hands to form a loose shape, like the namesake truffles, and set on the tray. Size them how you like, but I think golf-ball sized makes the perfect bite.
  9. Refrigerate formed truffles for at least 15 minutes.
  10. At this point, the truffles should be coated. You can either coat in melted chocolate, or cocoa powder or both. Some people find the cocoa powder too intense, but the chocolate coating can be annoying to get just right. The chocolate coating is recommended if you don’t plan on eating them in a day or two, as it seals the ganache. It is also possible to roll the coated truffles in any other sprinkly material: more lavender, nuts, cocoa nibs, etc.
  11. If you are coating the truffles with melted chocolate, melt 4 ounces of chocolate in a double boiler.
  12. Set up an assembly line with your tray of truffles, your bowl of melted chocolate if using, a bowl of cocoa powder with a fork and a bowl with a sieve if using cocoa, and another empty tray lined in parchment or waxed paper.
  13. Smear some melted chocolate in your hand and roll a truffle in it, coating lightly, but entirely. Let set for a second.
  14. AND/OR Drop into bowl with cocoa powder and turn with fork to coat. Use fork to drop into sieve to get rid of excess powder. Lay onto tray.
  15. Repeat with all truffles.
  16. Refrigerate for one hour before packaging in an air-tight container or something cute for gifts. Store in refrigerator, but enjoy at room temperature.
Chocolate dipped truffles, which you can also sprinkle with lavender before they dry.

In addition to my gigantic, extremely rustic cocoa-coated ones, these are some chocolate-coated truffles, which you can also sprinkle with lavender before it fully dries.

Because my hosts (my parents) are vegan, and it is so rude to bring chocolate into a house that someone can’t eat, I made a cream-free version as well, using coconut oil. It came out well, although the coconut flavor somewhat overpowered the lavender. I might use closer to 2 tablespoons next time.

Vegan Lavender Truffles

  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (good quality dark chocolate is usually dairy free, some of the other stuff isn’t)
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1-2 tablespoons dried lavender
  • 1-2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (optional)

Repeat recipe as above, replacing cream with coconut oil and water. Instead of boiling, heat gently to melt and let lavender steep. Continue from step 2.

 

*Recipes created from Bon Appétit, Robert Linxe’s recipe courtesy of Gourmet, Smitten Kitchen, Whole Living, and my previous experience.

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Sightings

Let them eat slightly stale eclairs!

It is so lovely when a dear friend comes to visit. Beyond good conversation and fun outings, a visiting friend can also provide motivation to get out and do some of those things that have been on the list for months.  The touristy things, if you will, that somehow get replaced by mornings of jogging in the forest, afternoons of faire des courses (grocery shopping, where you might have to hit up variously the Monoprix, the health food store, grocer, butcher, and baker for the meal) and evenings of watching every season of The Mentalist. This particular friend helped me finally get to the Louvre, for one, and we even took a tour, which I probably wouldn’t normally do. We also visited The Château de Versailles. Versailles is one of those places that I am glad exists because history but that I probably wouldn’t have gotten behind at the time it was built. See also: Colosseum. When we visited, back in February, although it felt just springy enough here in Paris to add a bounce to my step, it was still winter enough that the trees were barren, and the only flowers to be seen were sprinklings of tiny, white snowdrops. Also, the fountains were off, and the water very low so it was hard to get an idea of the gardens, beyond general enormity. All the opulence made us hungry, so we visited the in-house Angelina for lunch (there are many other dining options throughout the complex), to kill two tourist birds with one stone. We visited the take-away counter, rather than the restaurant, as the counter was already expensive but not EXPENSIVE. It was, I hope, not as good as the Parisian one, because the sandwiches were just fine and the eclairs were quite stale. Even without the gardens in bloom, the sheer vastness of the grounds, and lavishness of the castle itself is beautiful and impressive, and definitely highlights the chasm between the wealthy ruling class and starving peasants that existed at the time it was built.

While I was able to cross two important things off my list, it is still long, and somehow, after spending two months in Morocco, and after upcoming trips to Madrid, Rome, Florence, Berlin and Vienna, and back to Nantes, we will only be in Paris for one more month. I’m not sure how the year went by so fast, but I do know that I will have to really get going. Euro Disney, here I come!

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