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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Musings

Souvenirs and Gifts from Paris (that won’t break the bank)

Knowing that I was going back to the US for the holidays, and that I would be seeing almost my entire family during that time, I began to think about some gifts that I could bring back with me. Gifts that could serve as a Christmas present but with a souvenir flair, something that said, “I was thinking about you while I was away in this foreign country”. If money was no/not much of an object, I could think of millions of things that I would bring back: silk scarves and boxes of macarons, decadent chocolates and salted caramels, luxurious face creams, lusciously scented Diptyque candles, vibrant Provençal linens, chic and slightly wacky fashions, beautiful artworks and tiny jars of mustard in exotic flavors. As it is, though, I was forced to stick to a budget. I began researching gifts that were affordable, useful, and beautiful. Above all, these things had to feel French, ideally being things that French people love and use in their daily lives (ultimately landing far away from the items in the souvenir shops plastered with “France” or “Paris”, with one small exception). These are the things I found and not one of them is priced over 10 Euros. They can be combined in many different ways to create gifts at all price points and for various audiences (one such combination below) so that no one is left out. They can even be added to a more luxurious gift as a little something extra. I waited until now to share them since they were the actual gifts my family and friends received. Since my family and friends are unfailingly polite, I don’t know what the real response was, but I’ve seen many of them used, and I stand by all of them!

French Soaps

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I like these soaps because they smell delicious, come in a wide variety of authentic scents that are sure to please a panoply of noses, are so pretty, and the Marseilles region of Provence has been known for its (exacting) soap-making for centuries. These are Compagnie de Provence, but there is a wide range of brands with various packaging, scents and price points, as well as very famous solid laundry soap worth looking into.

Fleur de Sel

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When I said in French class (en français, of course) that I had bought salt as gifts everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I may be, I never know if my proclivities with food are normal (in fact I remember my mother being bemused by Guillaume’s and my excitement about some watermelon radishes that came in our CSA box and that we had pickled. She said, “What is the big deal with radishes?” I say, if one cannot get excited about beautiful concentric circles of hot pink in a giant slice of vegetable, crunchy and tangy from a pickling in vinegar, then I don’t know what one can get excited about. Personally.) Fleur de Sel, like many food items in France, is something that is taken completely seriously, and also completely for granted. It is in everyone’s cupboard, is very affordable, but is harvested in precise locations, with exacting standards, the same way that it always has been. I don’t think many people in the US keep fleur de sel, but it is very useful for finishing dishes, salads, or even desserts. I focused on fleur de sel from Guérande, near where we had been in Nantes, and Camargue.

Vichy Mint Pastilles

These mints, very French, made with Vichy water, and available in most supermarkets, were probably originally made to cure all sorts of ills. Now they just taste nice and freshen breath and are the perfect thing to tuck in to a larger gift or with other items, like the little satchels below, especially when elegantly packaged.

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Early on I came up with the idea of several smaller items wrapped up in another gift as a little parcel. I toyed with scarves, tote bags, tea towels, but then I found these napkins at a popular mid-range French department store, BHV. They are very French Country; a little kitschy while still being something that certain French people would use. I wrapped a soap, a container of fleur de sel and some mints in a napkin with some pretty ribbon in the colors of the French flag to really bring home the theme.

Eiffel Tower Keychains 

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The pièce de résistance (if you will allow a bit of exaggeration), I attached one of these to each of the parcels I gave away. This is definitely a Souvenir with a capital “S” and it even says Paris on it, but I bought my first Eiffel Tower keychain in 2001, and it has been on my keys ever since. It is the perfect size and shape to find in the depths of a bag or pocket, and reminds me of my trip every time. OK, so maybe a person who has not been to Paris would not want a remembrance on their keys, but it’s a little thing, and I think they are so adorable, especially attached to the tie on the parcel. They come in several different colors and designs, including some very kitschy ones, but I prefer this sort of vintage-y color, and simple design. 

Candle from Notre-Dame de Paris

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This might not be for everyone, but I discovered that Notre Dame Cathedral has candles that you can take with you for a suggested donation.

Tote Bags

Tote bags are infinitely useful, are often seen on the shoulders of (especially young) Parisians, and are available in many places. These are from the Rodin Museum, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and the Compagnie de Provence store, respectively.

Market Baskets

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These market baskets were actually the first thing I purchased in France. I noticed them at the large covered market in Nantes and they looked so French, so utilitarian and un-stuffy, indeed I saw them all around me overflowing with carrots and strawberries and being strapped to the backs of bicycles. They were also very well-priced (not being the very fancy kind that you buy at William-Sonoma) and I couldn’t resist a few for some family members. They definitely proved a bit of a challenge to tote around, especially since I wanted to keep them protected, and I learned a good rule: only buy things that will definitely fit in your suitcase.

Notebooks

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Who can’t use a notebook? Cute, useful, evocative.

Pottery Cups

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Is it cheating that these are sort of free? These absolutely adorable pots come filled with yogurt at the supermarket. Only one brand that I’ve found still uses colored clay pots, although many still use glass, and they change colors and flavors as the seasons do. Right now the flavor is vanilla, and the pots are this gorgeous red color with “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays) scrolled in the clay. I cannot think of a single person who would be, if not delighted by this piece of French crockery, at the very least find some clever use for it. Pencil cup? Bud vase? Custard cup? To hold salt on the countertop? Coffee cup? Shot glass in a pinch?

Herbes de Provence

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A traditional French spice blend from, as the name suggests, Provence. Oftentimes containing lavender, a staple product of the area, I learned that they only began including it when the tourists requested it. With or without the lavender, a nice choice for the chefs in your life.

Gift Tags

Finally, I knew I was looking for some tags or labels to distinguish the packages, and I thought I wanted them to say “Merry Christmas” in French. After a lot of searching I found these absolutely perfect ones at BHV, at Hôtel de Ville. I also liked the old-fashioned tags as well, which have a certain “je ne sais quoi”.

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