Sunday, October 30, 2011

Establishing Roots in Paris

I've now been in Paris for exactly 2 months, and just this past week, I've noticed a shift in my perception on being here.  I feel like I've gone from wide eyed tourist to wide eyed resident.  I'm certainly not proclaiming to now be an expert on well, anything really, but I feel an energy change from frenetic must see city tourer to a more grounded explorer of a place where I live.
The Guy's
There are a few things that help contribute to this feeling, outside of simply spending 8 weeks in a row here.  Having an apartment in Paris is certainly a different perspective on a city vs. hotel living. While I don't have an oven, I do have a little kitchen where I always look forward to whipping up fabulous local fare.  It's fun to go to the "marche" and dream up lunches and dinners after gaining inspiration from all the fresh produce.  I also now have "guy's," and no ladies, not the ones you were hoping for, but I have a chicken guy, a lettuce guy, a nut guy, and I try not to pledge allegiance to any one specific cheese guy since there's too many to love.  I no longer question why each of these guys has their own shop that just sells their one specialty. I just try not to stop into each of them everyday.

The Morton's Man
My supermarket is now a familiar place where I can automatically go to the yogurt section and grab my favorite without wondering if I actually grabbed the "dessert" yogurt.  I've even mustered up the courage to interact with the Morton's fish guy who stands in an open counterless corner with his rubber boots on as if a large wave may come crashing in the store at any point with the fresh catch of the day.  There's buckets of fish on both sides of him, most of whose names I have not heard of, but I take a stab and try a new one each week.  Unfortunately last week, I failed to mention I needed my fish "preparer" so I learned how to fillet, and didn't end up eating too many bones.

I'm sure you're thinking, you've been there 2 months now, you must be fluent?  Au contraire.  Turns out French is pretty hard when you start digging in past the bonjours and mercis, and everyone talks like they're 45 minutes late for something, which chances are is pretty accurate in this tardy town.  My teacher at Alliance Francais told me that I was very good at reading comprehension and writing, but I have to work on my listening comprehension and speaking, to which I give my best American duh, though I am trying to see if we can move the city to a more letter based passing of notes to interact with one another because that'd be much easier for me.

On the advice of my teacher, I switched into an all oral class twice a week where all you do is speak.  There's no books - just you and your bad French.  I enjoyed it like you might enjoy getting your legs waxed - painful while it's happening, but your happy with the results after.  Unfortunately the class was full after my first week, so I'm classless, but I've made myself sign up for some conversation gatherings around town.  I went to one today called Let Them Talk where I sat in a cafe with 4 other mono syllabic, quizzically, gesturing non-French speakers, while a Frenchman tried to put our words into coherent sentences with a little wipey board.  It was actually pretty good practice as half the battle is just getting into the habit of spitting out the words.  I'm going to a "Franglish" event this week where you spend 7 minutes speaking to a French person in French and then 7 minutes in English and you help each other not feel stupid with their non-native tongue.

This seat taken?
In my quest to just keep practicing (and to never miss a good meal), I was lined up at this Vietnamese restaurant over the week-end near closing time for lunch.  I had heard good things about it, but wasn't sure I was going to be able to get in.  I noticed the woman ahead of me and next in line was also alone so I asked in my best French if I could share her table, and next thing I know I'm eating Vietnamese food with a Chinese woman while speaking French and talking about Paris' Chinatown.  It was a good meal all the way around.

Yes, I was going to give myself the rest of the year off, but I'm a doer, and have now started to write for some Parisian websites, en anglais of course (see above).  I have become the poster child for the velib bike system in Paris, so I wrote a how-to guide and it's been published on the popular site, the Girl's Guide to Paris.  I'm going to be writing regular articles for them and I just finished a review of some of the Mexican restaurants in town, so stay tuned for France meets Mexico.  There's a few other sites I'm also in the process of writing some articles for, and I'm even discussing with someone the possibility of giving or creating food and wine tours in Paris.  So yes, a lot can happen in 2 months.

With these 2 months also comes another reality on the subject of establishing roots.  I hate to reveal my beauty secrets, but if I go more than 2 months without a trip to the hair dresser, the roots of my past come out to say hello.  I put off this visit as long as humanly possible, but alas this week, it was go time.

All of my English speaking brethren in Paris go to the same English speaking salon that they don't like.  The products aren't good, it's really far and the prices suck.  Not much of a draw.  I met someone at a dinner a little while ago with a really cute cut, but alas she doesn't have root issues, but she told me about a friend of hers who does, so she gave me her friend's hair info and I made an appointment at someones hair salon who I had never met or seen from a gal I just met over dinner. 

I walked into the salon to find a dog and 2 women and none of the 3 spoke any English.  I gave the colorist my hair details from home, pretty sure that this was an idle gesture that she would be laughing at in the back.  She returned and put color on my roots and we spoke French for a while and all was well.  Then she started to do something that I wasn't familiar with and I tried to confirm what was happening and she basically told me that she was going to do things differently and it will be better, and your hair sucked when you came in, or something like that.  Then she leaves me with crap all over my hair for what seems like half the day and goes and hangs out with the dog who is sitting in the shampoo seat.

At some point later, she bumps the dog and starts rinsing my hair out in the sink.  Eventually the dog comes back and sits in my lap.  There's things uttered that I don't really understand for many reasons, most especially because there was water flowing through my ears, but I learn later that there's a charge for shampoo and conditioner, which doesn't feel like an option when you have mud stuck in your hair.  She finished by wrapping my hair in a towel and walks away and I sit there for what seems like another half day wondering if I'm going to need to keep this towel on my head until Christmas.

Finally my cutter lady comes over and we try and play the get to know you game in French while I simultaneously attempt to explain that I don't want to be bald when I leave.  Unable to tell the color of my hair yet, I watch inches of my hair fall to the ground.  Eventually it's time to dry and the colorist sidles up behind us to check things out, and everyone appears quite pleased, including me.  I'm actually pretty happy with it and the ladies were lovely, and even the little dog, so I have a new French hair salon in Paris.

I'm slowly laying a foundation in Paris and it feels good.  I miss my family and friends terribly, but their support has gotten me this far.  I've been very fortunate to have met some great people in Paris as well that have welcomed me, entertained me, given me too much to eat and drink (or was it vice versa) and made me feel at home in this great city. 

I just told my landlady that I'd like to stay in this same place next year until at least the summer when I'll come home again for a few weeks and decide next steps once again.  I will likely be applying for a student visa over Christmas to continue my French studies, while also allowing me to work 20 hours a week, and of course keeping me legal in Paris for a year.  So start planning your Spring trips because I'll be here.

A bientot!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wine, Cheese, and Mustard - Burgundy's Perfect Trifecta

I've been trying to stay put in Paris so I can fully dig into life here, but after all this learning, talking and drinking of wine, it was time to go visit the source - Burgundy.

My friend Doni and I rented a car in Paris and thank goodness Doni knows her way around the streets here because driving in this city is not for the timid.  It took us quite some time to get out of Paris, but once we hit the open road, things went pretty smooth.  After 3 1/2 hours in the car, we were ready for a good meal and a nice glass, and we had reservations at just the place.

We ate at Hostellerie de Levernois, a 4 star Relais & Chateaux hotel with a 1 Michelin star gastronomic restaurant.  We started with interesting Champagne and wine cocktails in the lounge and ate a nice array of amuse bouche while listening to some live jazz music.  The perils of the road were quickly left behind.  We ordered our tasting menu and wine will sitting in the lounge and then they took us to our table where our wine was waiting.  The service was top notch, but the ambiance could have used a little subtle tweaking like softer lighting and more subdued plating than the bright red plates and glasses.

Our tableside amuse was what Doni called a pig egg roll.  It had a flaky crust with pig's feet inside, surrounding by a cold gravy gelee and a chevre cream.  Things were off to a good start.

I then had a creamy risotto with frog's legs and escargot - an unlikely duo of creatures, but they both added a nice flavor and chewiness to the dish.  Doni had the largest sushi scallop roll I've ever seen with scallops laying on a bed of crab and cream sauce.

I ordered the veal knuckle, and while those aren't words that have ever came out of my mouth before, I will now be uttering them everywhere I go in hopes that someone might make me this amazing dish again.  The veal was braised all day so it was tender and packed full of flavor.  It was then stuffed with carrots and vegetables in a sausage form for pure delight with a light, salty, bean sauce next to mushrooms and a delicate puff of potatoes.  I will remember that dish for a long time.

Doni had a fish that contained no knuckles, and hence wasn't nearly as good as mine.

Where could we possibly go from there?  The cheese course.  I've been excited by many a cheese, tray, cart, trolley, but what they're doing at Levernois, makes the rest look like cheese kindergarten.  After we finished our mains, they started setting up a table at the end of ours. I was on the edge of my seat with excitement.  Then I see them set up another table next to it, and I can hardly remain in my chair.  Then both tables are filled with over 50 hard, soft, white, blue, smelly, oozy cheeses from around the world, and some amazing one's from their own backyard.

There was never a question of how many would you like or which 3 interest you.  No, you just keep pointing and pointing, and try not to drool and be full, and hope you're not dreaming, but if you are, you want to have this dream again and again.  It was a fabulous food experience that I hope will exist again in my lifetime.

But wait, there's more, though I don't fully remember much of what happened next, there was chocolate in various states, apples, and homemade ice cream.  They gave us more cute little treats on a plate and we left happy women.  An amazing meal and for a very reasonable price. 

I would return here for dinner, and perhaps even include an overnight since the restaurant and hotel are on beautiful grounds with a stream running through and many places to rest after an amazing meal.

Saturday, we walked into our town of Beaune to see the large market they have every week, where they sell clothes, CDs, bags, and of course, a whole lot of food.  There were apples, pears, grapes, melons, vegetables and a whole lot of  mushrooms.  Seeing as it's truffle season, there were many displayed like little dark gems under glass containers.  We got a few treats for the road, and were ready for some wine tasting.
Florent, a friend of a few friends in Paris, lives in Beaune and knows his way around Burgundy.  He gave us a map and some good recommendations to try out.  We began by driving south through the Cote de Beaune and first stop was the little town of Pommard and Domaine Lahaye.  The nicest French woman greeted us and told us that she does all the wine work with her son.  Her husband had passed away and the 2 of them keep everything going.

She let us sample nearly a dozen really solid wines across the board and spent a lot of time talking with us (all in French).  We picked up a few bottles and were already ready for lunch. 

Doni spied a little tent off the side of a road and we turned off to see what was going on.  They were serving escargot and Aligote (a cheesy potato mix to warm the soul) and we got both and sat at one of the picnic tables to eat a casual, but authentic meal.

We wandered through St. Romain and admired the amazing views of the vineyards from above.  It was cool and hazy in the morning, but the sun came out and gave us glorious colors later in the afternoon. 

Our stop in St.Romain was called Domaine Gras and it was a person's home.  This was a beautiful home with amazing views, but we were a little unsure if we really just ring the doorbell and come into their residence on a week-end.  As long as we were buying, we could come in is basically what we were told.

We sat in a makeshift garage and had a few wines that were ok, but of course we had to buy something, so hopefully in time, it will be even better.

Next stop was La Rochepot, a quaint town with a spectacular castle.  We got there just in time to walk the plank and catch the next tour.  The original castle was built in the 11th Century, and the one we saw had been there since the 13th Century.  Dukes to Burgundy lived here, and lived pretty well judging by the beautiful rooms and views.  We saw many roofs around Burgundy with this almost Spanish style, multi-colored tops.  It was really unique and very beautiful.

We were told there was a guy in town at Domaine Masson with good Cremant de Bourgogne, but when we rang his doorbell, he told us he doesn't sell it anymore.  He did open a few other bottles for us that weren't our favorite, but again we felt a little obligated to buy though no one told us to do so.  It's a much different wine experience in Burgundy where you're going into someone's home or shop and it's usually the winemaker or owner who is greeting you and stopping their work to tell you about their wines.  You almost wish that they'd just charge a tasting fee so you wouldn't feel bad if you didn't like any of the wine, though some in fact do this.

Our final stop was at Domaine Olivier Le Faive in Puligny Montrachet. They have a nice, little hotel and restaurant with tasting room. They do fairly elaborate tasting lunches where you dine and taste several wines from the area.  A good option if you can't find snails by the side of the road.  We did pay a tasting fee and enjoyed a lot of the wines here.

We journeyed back to the hotel and rested up before setting out for dinner.  We ate at Ton Ton, a small, few table wine shop and restaurant where the wife is in back cooking and the husband is out serving.  It seemed like many people knew each other and I know I was surprised when I saw a colorful woman in neon green pants and head scarf come out of the back at the end of the night to greet everyone.

In case we didn't have our fill the night before, we had warm chevre with a sweet, carmelized fennel.

Then we had some of the area's famous Bresse chicken.  Mine was the opposite of the boring, dry, overcooked chicken you have at home.  It was dark meat and actually tasted like meat with a rich, salty jus to accompany and a few token vegetables that I was left wanting for more.  I won't even tell you that we had cheese for dessert and the picture looks like tiny offspring from the previous night.

Sunday was the rugby finals between New Zealand and France, so of course we had to find a local pub to support the team and watch the action.  It was 10am and the pub was packed with many French fans, some with jerseys on and some with their faces painted.  There were even New Zealand fans and jerseys in the bar and for some reason, everyone got along.  There were no punches, yelling at each other, and in fact the Kiwi got a beer for one of the French face painters at one point - ok, it was at the end, so maybe she owed her a beer since New Zealand did in fact win the game, but not by the shut out that was predicted.

We then went into the charming Beaune town centre and toured the beautiful Hotel Dieu aka Hospices de Beaune, the name that was more familiar to me since they sponsor the top notch gathering and auction of Burgundy's best wines in November.  The Hospices was a hospital built in 1443 just after the Hundred Years' War when times were tough.  The Duke of Burgundy and wis wife thought it would be nice to create a hospital for the poor, and some of the surrounding vines ended up paying for its annual upkeep.  See, wine can save lives.

The roof of Hotel Dieu is more of the glazed multi colored tile we had seen elsewhere in the region.  When the sun hits it, it's quite a sight.

This was the prettiest hospital I've ever seen with back to back red velvet draped beds with beautiful french oak.  They weren't the longest of beds, but hopefully the people were shorter back then.

Quite a few things were closed on Sunday so we decided to take a drive north to Dijon, where we found pretty much the whole city closed except for a few restaurants, so we had lunch at an old printing press shop.  It was filled with old books and presses, and lots of food items you might find on a Chili's menu like pizza, fajitas and burgers.  The burger actually was pretty good, though there is definitely a different taste to the meat, but the onion confit and great mustard distracted us from the less than meaty taste.  Mussels were also a good accompaniment to the meal, and yes, beer too just to mix things up and keep the palate fresh.

Dijon has much more of a city feel to it than our quiet town of Beaune, but when everything is closed, everything is quiet.  There is a nice town center with restaurants overlooking a fountain covered plaza. 

 And of course Dijon is home to the mustard of the same name. Moutard de Maille is one of the original mustard makers and their window displayed the mustard like caviar, but unfortunately no tastings for us. 

We did stumble upon an amazing larger than life sculpture in a random passage in a small nook of town.

We then took a very picturesque drive south through the Cote de Nuit and the fabulous wine villages of Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne Romanee and Nuits St. George.  Fall was everywhere with the leaves turning yellow, red and every shade in between.  It was a great time to be there and while hotels were booked everywhere, it was rare we saw many people.  Nothing like having the vines and all the wonderful countryside to yourself.
We were nearly foaming at the mouth by the time we got to Aloxe Corton, the final town before back in Beaune.  These "towns" are tiny little villages mostly filled with homes, usually a church in the middle and then 2-4 little rooms either in someone's home or a rented room where you can taste wine.  Sometimes people are there when you ring the bell, sometimes not.  One time we were sent away unless we were buying cases of wine.  I guess everyone has business to do and selling a few bottles at a time doesn't mean they can close their doors for the winter.

Aloxe actually had 2 little "shops" open and we did some sampling in each.  Much of the wine in the area is meant for cellaring for a while, so it's often difficult to taste these young wines that aren't ready yet, but there's always a few in the mix ready to go for comparison.  Aloxe also has a cute restaurant Domain Comte Senard where you can have a nice lunch while sampling many local wines, but unfortunately it was booked while we were there, but definitely a must for next time.

Back to Beaune, we got ready for dinner in town.  The restuarant was part of a hotel with a Swedish chef who has been making a name for himself.  We got a table overlooking the kitchen, which always looked very orderly with the Swede serving plates and 3 younger guys in back sweating it out.

We started with vodka - an amuse bouche for the mouth.  It took a little explaining but I more or less got a dirty martini before we moved back to wine.  The first wine I ordered was actually corked, which was a bit of relief as I was hoping I hadn't ordered such a bad wine. The vodka worked well with the oysters and also a foie gras and artichoke dish that ended up being a bit bland, and no, I don't think it's because I've killed all of my taste buds.

We continued with seared salmon on a bed of a sauce that was too sweet and syrupy for the delicate fish.  The truffle risotto was better, but still not a wow.

Luckily it ended on a high note for me with a chocolate cake to go with my port, or maybe it was the other way around.  I'd say, save your money for Levernois, as this place wasn't nearly as good and almost the same price.

I said goodbye to Doni the next morning and she left with the rental car back to Paris, and being the woman of leisure that I am, I decided to stay the rest of the day to maximize my first Burgundy experience.

Seeing as I was in the mustard capital of the world, I decided to go on a mustard tour of the "last great familial factory" of  Burgundy, La Moutarderie Fallot, which was just down the street from our hotel.  They've been in business since 1840 and I got to tour their original location where it all began, and continues today.  We learned all about the process and also got to do some hands on crushing of mustard seeds which was not an easy task, but luckily some muscley men where up for the challenge, and yes there are a few French men with muscles or at least an ego not to let the seeds win.

After a few videos and tour of the mustard mahinery, it was tasting time.  They had several of their mustards lined up with different accoutrement to sample all of the goods.  I have to say, I was never much of a mustard fan, but now I'm sold and have about 10 different flavors from the good people at Fallot.

It was a beautiful day in Burgundy, I was without a car, most of the shops were closed (yes, again), I'd taken the mustard tour, so where was I to go from there?  To the vines.  Or rather, to bike the vines.  I've somehow turned into a biker since moving to France, but I'm still sans side car and small dog in a basket.  My new friend Florent who helped us with wine recommendations in Burgundy when we arrived, also rents bikes and showed me a great bike path that literally goes through the middle of the vines.  Armed with a map and a small picnic in my backpack, I set out for some more time in the Cote de Nuit.

A bit hestitant that I was going to be fighting cars and traffic, I was happily mistaken as this was a path just for bikes and local traffic and grape tractors so essentially I was on it by myself for most of the day.  It's exactly where I wanted to be - smack dab in the middle of vines on both sides of me.  The fall colors were breathtaking and I had a great ride through the villages of Pommard, Volnay and my final stop of Meursault.

In Meursault, I went to Domaine Ropiteau where I literally flagged someone down to see if I could do some "degustation."  I went in with my best French and he suggested English might be easier for both of us.  Music to my ears as not everyone in these towns speak English.  Turns out the guy who was helping me makes all of the white wines for Domaine Ropiteau, and he worked in Napa for a little while, hence his good English.  When I asked where he worked, he said most people haven't heard of it, it's called Screaming Eagle.  Heard of it?  I threw out the cult winemaker's name and the fact that I got to meet her and try out some of her new wines a year ago, which I think earned me some street cred, or at least he hooked me up for my vineyard picnic to come.  He gave me one of his cold white wines, opened it and sent me off with one of his glasses that if I didn't have time to return, tole me just to give to Florent and he'll pick it up from him at some point.

You can imagine that I had the most wonderful lunch IN the vines with some nice salami, cheese, bread and wine produced by a guy I just met. 

A great week-end and a most beautiful place.