Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Carbo-pig-a-palooza: Potatoes, Pork and Vodka in Alsace

I've heard much about the infamous Christmas Markets celebrated all over the world, but I was excited to experience them for myself this year in one of the places where it all began. I have 3 friends who have been to the markets several times so I knew I was in good hands as we set out on our week-end trip.

Lisette and I took the easy 2 hour 20 minute train from Paris to Strasbourg and met up with Melissa and Brad who did the longer, but more scenic drive north to the border of Germany.  The Strasbourg market started in 1570, making it one of the oldest in France.  It was originally created to distribute presents to the children, and then eventually they thought to throw in a line about celebrating Christkindel, the Baby Jesus.  Nice after thought to buffer the commercialism to come.

Local merchants used the markets as an occasion to sell their handmade food and crafts, but now you'll see an errant angry Rock N Roll Santa and snow globe.

The markets are only open until 9pm, so Friday night, Lisette and I met the other 2 at a restaurant for my first onion - carb product, accompanied by a lovely dry Riesling.  The French Riesling is a nice dry white wine, where the Riesling's Germany produce are a sweeter taste that most people don't like as well.  Most of the wine glasses in Alsace also have this pretty green stem, making the contents inside pretty and tasty.

After eating, we wandered the streets of Strasbourg looking at all of the spectacular Christmas lights and decorations.  It really was like walking through a fantasy, make believe land that Disney created to celebrate Christmas, though I guess it was the other way around.  Walt or Mickey, whomever is older, must have taken a trip here and then went home to create picturesque sets and theme parks based on the color and charm of these towns.

With most of the town shut down by 10pm, we returned to the hotel where we were happy to see the bar still open.  After drinking wine, I was ready for my vodka fix.  Lately I have been having no luck getting my dirty martini, and this bar was no exception.  The bartender looked at me like I asked if he had peanut butter to mix with my vodka, but he rebounded nicely with a lemon twist.  It did take him close to 10 minutes to make it, but it was refreshing and citrusy, so I was happy.

The next day, we started with a solid breakfast at Kirn, which is like a mini-Whole Foods but no one is wearing Uggs or carrying a yoga mat.  One of the butchers was taunting me and my need for a Thanksgiving sandwich as he was preparing a turkey with stuffing, and the rest of the counters had amazing displays of cheese, salads and of course wieners, but more on that later.

We went out to explore the markets, which are little log cabin looking booths set up all over the tiny town that is encricled by water.  I needed to come up with another word for cute, because I must have said 72 times, "Oh my gosh, that's sooooo cute."

People couldn't have been nicer, but that may have had something to do with the tradition of drinking vin chaud, or warm wine with spices, throughout the day to stay warm.  You pay a 1 euro deposit for a cup, or a mug in some parts, and then they fill you up with red or white spiced wine, which was pretty much Christmas in a cup.
The little chalets sold everything from candles to jewelry to homemade honey, cheese, chocolates, and of course Christmas accoutrement.  I've never been the person to stop into a Christmas store to look at ornaments, but I was drinking the Christmas Koolaid here, and again, everything was soooooo cute.  So I now have "the cutest" set of 3 snowmen and a matching wooden, white washed Christmas tree, that I'm sure one of the Alsatian elves made in their workshop around the corner.

The cathedral in the center of town is truly spectacular, and not just because it makes a good landmark if you're lost or in need of more vin chaud.  It might just be the most beautiful cathedral I've seen to date.  Its first iteration was built in 1015 and there were fires and rebuilding projects, and for 4 centuries, it was the tallest building in the modern world.

This elaborate astronomical clock was built by a team in 1842 and legend has it that they wanted to blind the lead designer after construction was complete so he'd never create anything this beautiful again.  At 12:30 each day, the clock puts on a show, but unfortunately we missed it.  There was food to eat afterall.

I'm a big "when in Rome" type gal, so even though I don't even like sauerkraut, I had to strap in for a plate full of not 1, not 2, but 5 different pig products on top of sauerkraut.  Sounds daunting, huh?  Well yes, it was.  This was not cute.  This was slightly obscene, and maybe even pornographic, though I have to say the sauerkraut was really tasty.

I barely made a dent in my plate, but then I saw the woman next to me ordered the same thing and there wasn't one drop of pork to be seen on her plate when she was finished.  She was not an amateur.  Lisette had the pork knuckle, which was also intimidating, but extremely flavorful, no doubt due to a multi hour braising process.

Then there's the various forms of let's just call it a German pizza.  It could be on a toasted French bread with creme fraiche.  That's right, I said creme fraiche, and then there's lardon and cheese on top.  And you have to have it "gratineed" with grilled onions in the mix.  Or you can have a thinner crust with the same toppings.  Or no crust, but the same ingredients in a bucket on top of sauerkraut or potatoes.  No matter how you slice, you will enjoy it, and not be able to stop eating it, and once you do finally step away, you'll never be able to look at another pig or carb product again.
Traditional Alsacian garb and grub
The usual pork, cheese, onion, carb suspects

We all drove about an hour north to Colmar Saturday afternoon and did more of the same - pig, carb, vin chaud, Christmas cuteness, while ooing and ahhing at the fabulous scenery set amongst the canals of Colmar.  You can see how the markets are different by day and night, but both spectacular.

On Saturday night, I needed a drink to cut through the strong tastes and mulled wine, so naturally, you all know what I went in for.  The waiter was very nice, but said there was no olive juice so I attempted just a regular martini with vodka.  What I got is still a bit of a mystery, but good enough that I had 2.  When the check came, I looked and my vodka was listed on there, as well as a separate line item for "Martini."  When I asked the nice waiter what that was he basically said it's Martini Rossi, who makes a vermouth, though this particular drink did not taste like just vodka and vermouth.  He explained to me that my order is not something anyone orders in France.  Who knew the mark I'd be leaving on France is how to make a martini.  My quest continues.

Sunday we started in the markets of Colmar and ended back in Strasbourg where 3 of us were grabbing a train back to Paris at the end of the day.  We all picked up more treasures, pork products, crepes, and then I had to throw in a "Bretzel" at the original pretzel shop in Colmar where you can get cheese, chorizo, or any of the aforementioned ingredients.

And now I can safely say I'm carbed and totally pigged out on the Alsacian Christmas Markets...until next year.  Here's the article I wrote for the Girl's Guide to Paris talking about the experience, and another one giving my own walking tour of some of the Christmas Lights in Paris.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Massage, Museum, Mexican and Men

Holiday Week Continued with my actual birthday on Tuesday.  I woke up to a fabulously mild day in Paris with warm, clear, blue skies.  I was a bit unsure how to celebrate my actual bday since every day here has been a fabulous gift.  Luckily a resourceful friend recommended I get a Thai massage from one of the native trained Thai women at their beautiful oasis in Paris, so off I went.  I arrived and was asked to take off my shoes as soon as I got there.  Hopefully this is something they ask of everyone, and not a comment on the state of my American footwear.  They returned with a warm wash wash cloth and I was already relaxed just sitting in the front room looking at the Thai statues and listening to the trickling water.  
I was walked upstairs to a large room of mattresses on the floor, swathed in Thai silks and flowers that had colorful curtains that came down to give you full privacy. 

I changed into baggy Thai pants and a loose top and the next 90 minutes were pure bliss, even if there were elbows, feet and knees used for the full body rub down.  There was French and English going on, but I think everyone speaks massage, so it all went very well.

Walking around Paris in a haze afterwards, I was debating where to eat for lunch, and found myself on auto pilot going to my favorite little Mexican joint, Candelaria. Guac says happy bday in any language.

Having covered Thai and Mexican, I was ready to dive back into my host country and I decided to go to a museum in my neighborhood that I've passed dozens of times with every intention of visiting, but never got around to.  Musee Carnavalet focuses on the history of Paris and its people, but what I find especially interesting about it is that the collection is displayed throughout 2 townhouses where you wander from small room to room, giving it a more intimate feel.

I loved this room of signs. Some are quite elaborate since some of the shopkeepers were illiterate, so they made very expressive signs to show what they were selling.

You may recognize this one as it's now on many posters, "Chat Noir Cabaret," celebrating the artistic haven of Montmartre.

The over 100 galleries within the townhouses showcased several different centuries, including the storming of the Bastille, which was of special interest to me since I live right next to the Bastille, so I got to see some replicas of the Bastille and paintings of how things used to look.

The day was capped by a fabulous meal at a local French bistro with a friend called Les Temps des Cerises.  Again, it was another place I had passed a bunch of times down the street from me, but I finally had a chance to eat there, and loved the neighborhood feel.  My duck was fantastic, and the pear crumble was better than any sugary frosting laden cake!

My wonderful friends from home continue to introduce me to people they know in Paris, and I've had the good fortune of having 2 all male lunches in the past week.  My first lunch was with Jean-Francois, Jean-Michel and Stephane, and my lunch this week was with Jean-Charles and Stephan.  Those are 5 different people, not related, except by French heritage and an apparent lack of creativity from their parents on their names.  If I ever forgot a name, I'd just say Jean something or Stephan.  I met the first 3 near the Palais and they were all impeccably dressed in suits and fabulous shoes, and that's a refreshing change from the board shorts and flip flops I'm used in in LA.  I laughed when they asked if I drink wine.  I didn't think I'd get past Paris Passport control if my answer to that was no.  Drinking during the workday is not a big deal, and one of them said he pretty much needs to drink for his job since he's always entertaining clients.  They all worked in Finance so we had some interesting conversation around the current state of affairs, and then I came to learn that 2 of them are war re-enactors.  They travel several times a year recreating any battle with Napoleon in it.  I may have gotten a little street cred for having studied at Gettysburg, though I never attended one of the many re-enactments, but it looks like a French one is in my future soon.

My lunch this week was with a more casual bunch, but very entertaining - literally.  The 2 are hockey commentators and one of them has commentated on gymnastics for the Olympics for the last 8 games, so you may know him already.  Stephan lives and works down the street from me so I got some good restaurant recommendations, including the spot where we had a really nice, locals lunch.  He knew the people working there quite well and walking down the street, he was also stopping cars, and shaking hands.  I think I met the mayor of the Marais, and I may be going to my first Parisian ice hockey game next week.

My big coup was not drinking or taking dessert at lunch.  I'm honestly trying to find a place to cut back and you would think lunch would be easy enough, but I have been "hugely" unsuccessful.  I did drink at the other men's lunch, but didn't take dessert, and they all looked at me as if I said all Parisians are rude (believe me, they're not), and then taunted me with theirs, and yes, then I had to take a bite.  I don't know how there's so many thin Parisians here.

After lunch, I passed by the store, Thanksgiving, which sells American goods at prices that should include a plane ticket home.  The store had a line going out the door the day before Thanksgiving to buy that last minute can of $12 cranberry sauce, and $15 box of Mac and Cheese just in case everything goes awry. 

Tonight was the cap to my Thanksgiving week with a "traditional" US Thanksgiving meal in a restaurant.  I had the home cooked pre-Thanksgiving meal on Sunday to cover my stuffing and pumpkin pie fix, just in case this meal turned out to be an all foie gras - escargot extravaganza.  I know the French can't help themselves, but after arriving at the restaurant, I learned that the couple running the place were American, so I breathed a sigh of relief, and was happy I was in a flowing dress with no restrictive buttons or zippers.

6 of us ex-Pats from all across the US showed up ready and hopefully for some flavors from home.  We recounted our favorite dishes and memories of Thanksgiving, some of which included rice with Turkey, and no stuffing - sacrilege, but not so with a Latin American background.  There was potato gun shooting and turkey smoking, but the common thread was friendly people having a nice meal, and that's just what we did tonight.

We started with a warm carrot soup that was rich and velvety, and thank goodness explained why there were croutons on the table.

We got all the goods on our Thanksgiving plate of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, green beans, butternut squash, with a drizzle of gravy.  Yes, I wish it were more than a drizzle, but the food was good enough to stand on its own without gravy soup.

We were asked for dessert if we wanted apple, pumpkin or pecan pie.  I was a little puzzled as I assumed we got a small sliver of each like back home.

I think they were on to me with my forgiving waistband, which I now applaud them for.  I went pecan pie, and I was not disappointed.  It was sweet and decadent and the perfect ending to this US Thanksgiving meal in Paris...or almost.

We had to have a nightcap drink down the street, and then I had a nice, long walk home to digest all of the food and reflect on how thankful I am to be living in Paris and be supported by the friends and family I have now on both sides of the pond.

Happy Thanksgiving all!