Happy New Year

Last full moon of 2020

It’s over. Gone. 2020 – the terrible, horrible year we need to forget. 

However, we were very lucky and had a pleasant last day of that dreadful year. Glorious sunshine. Bob and I went down to the seaside on Dec. 31 for our coastal walk, even saw picnickers on the beach. We had our picnic with take-out sandwiches, sat on a bench enjoying our lunch, sharing some of it with seagulls and pigeons. The sea is my therapy.

Picnic by the Mediterranean

The food greatly improved later in the day: A gourmet New Year’s Eve dinner delivered from a nearby restaurant, L’Hippocampe (the sea horse). Due to Covid, restaurants in France have been closed since late October. Our dinner was exquisite, and no slaving in the kitchen involved.

Venison for New Year’s Eve

Cerf (venison) Facon Civet et sa Polenta was the main course. Cerf is a large European deer. Hunting is tightly regulated and popular in France, however most venison comes from farm raised deer. The meat has a lower fat and cholesterol content than beef. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender and full of flavor. Polenta stars and mini vegetable puree concoctions were perfect accompaniments, all in a rich sauce. Deer is expensive, considered a delicacy, and usually only found during the holidays – unless you happen to know a hunter. 

Dinner with a view

The meal began with an assortment of canapes. We chose two different entrees so we could share and taste each:  Terrine de Langouste aux Corail d’Oursin (crayfish terrine with coral of sea urchin) and Foie Gras de Canard mi cuit aux Figues (half cooked duck foie gras with figs). You can never go wrong with foie gras, a holiday must in France. It took first place, but the terrine was good.

Earlier in the week I found fresh cranberries at the supermarket – rare here. I snatched up two boxes and made cranberry chutney which was good with the deer, and the cheese course which preceded the dessert, a treat labeled Gourmandise. We are not sure what it was, but it was creamy and yummy.

Lots of candles for New Year’s Eve. Bob and two of three xats..

Wine – no rare, pricey vintages for us.  We are easily pleased and began with a white, a Touraine Sauvignon, followed by a Burgundy, Hautes Cotes de Nuit.  The finale, a regional speciality, Limoncello.  All in all – a delicious and delightful way to bid farewell to a wretched year. 

Lemon Brown Sugar Blueberry Pancakes for a tasty start of the New Year.

We awoke to rain and clouds on New Year’s Day. We were happy to stay indoors and watch the New Year’s concert from Vienna, my New Year’s ritual which always brings back fond memories of visits to this fabulous city.  Brunch followed, featuring Lemon Brown Sugar Blueberry Pancakes. Bob is a pancake man. I much prefer egg concoctions. He also adores blueberries. I was happy to make a New Year’s treat for him. I liked it too thanks to Ligonberry syrup which we brought back from our cruise trip in Norway.  I need to find some more of that delicacy a bit closer to home.

Beach picnic on 31 Dec., 2020

May 2021 be filled with happiness, good health, fun times and fabulous food. May Covid disappear.

HAPPY NEW YEAR. BON APPETIT

See Today’s Taste for the blueberry pancake recipe.

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Merry Christmas

“Nothing ever seems too bad, too hard or too sad when you’ve got a Christmas tree in the living room” — Nora Roberts

Christmas cat Simba and our tree.

With or without a Christmas tree, may your holiday season be filled with joy, love, laughter – and delicious food.

Scroll down for a few festive photos.

My balcony garden
Our view of nearby Menton and its blue Christmas lights.
A Russian Santa on skis, one of my holiday treasures. Note the blackbird on his head.
After the pre-Christmas rain.
Filippo, one of my three Christmas cats. Fortunately they have not tried to climb my precious tree.

Happy 2021. It will be better. We have hope. We have vaccines. We will not have Trump — at least not as president. Rejoice. We can be very, very happy.

More to come soon — including a report on my recent back surgery — it’s good.

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France: Lockdown #2

Happy Black Friday. Sadly it is blacker than ever in the U.S. as recent newspaper headlines testify:

“As Americans gather for Thanksgiving, the world watches with dread and disbelief.”

“Coronavirus deaths reach levels unseen since early in the pandemic”

“Coronavirus cases skyrocketing again in cities.”

Millions have thrown caution to the wind, ignored the CDC guidelines, and traveled to celebrate with friends and family. These gatherings are termed “super spreader events.” The prediction is grim. “Celebrate at Thanksgiving. Christmas in the ICU.” Fortunately many are behaving sensibly, not traveling, foregoing large gatherings.

As an American in France where restrictions are respected and followed for the most part, and the numbers seem to be going down, I have to wonder about Americans. How can they be so stupid? Of course, in part it’s due to the politicization of the pandemic which is inexcusable. Trump has made light of the crisis. It’s not macho to wear a mask. Instead of leading, he plays golf and thousands die each day. From the beginning, there has been no national plan to combat the spread of the disease. It is scandalous, shameful, tragic, and too many have been sacrificed due to this neglect and ineptitude. This from the most powerful, richest country on the globe. — all beyond belief.

Bob and Thomas play checkers — at home entertainment during lockdown.

Life under Lockdown is no picnic in France, but I’d rather be here where the situation is slowly improving than in US where it is out of control, where hospitals are running out of beds and exhausted health care workers complain of shortages of essential equipment.

In France, we have been under partial lockdown since October 30. This has not been as strict as lockdown #1 last winter and spring. Schools, for example, have stayed open. Nonetheless, life has been far from normal. Tuesday evening President Emanuel Macron announced that France has passed the peak of the second wave. A three phase loosening of restrictions begins this weekend. After the last lockdown abruptly ended, all returned to normal too quickly, it appears. The virus slowly returned with a vengeance. Thus, this time, a long and progressive relaxation of restrictions will be put in place.

Wear a mask, warns the sign along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

Until now, only food stores, pharmacies and a few other businesses considered “essential” have been open. Just in time for Christmas shopping, other stores will open Saturday as part of phase 1 and be permitted to stay open until 9 p.m. and on Sundays, both unheard of in France where most all stores are closed on Sunday and shut down by 6 or 7 p.m. Just as in lockdown #1, outdoor exercise, walks, have been limited to one hour per day and within a one kilometer distance from your residence. However now we will have freedom to venture up to 20 kilometers from home and be out for up to three hours – but not after the 9 p.m. curfew.

Wine stores have remained open. After all, in France wine is essential.

Just as during lockdown #1, we must fill out the “attestation” whenever we leave home – a document with name, address, birthdate, time of departure and a check next to one of the permitted activities/reasons for the departure (food shopping, doctor visits, exercise, plus a few others). If you are caught without the authorization or disobeying the rules, you can be fined 135 euros. 

Excercise on the beach –this time it is permitted.

We were diligently obedient during the previous lockdown and stayed very close to our apartment when out. This time we have taken liberties. The parks and beaches, which were closed last time, have stayed open. I love the beach, although it is a bit farther away than one kilometer. I still swim, my therapy. Yes, it’s cold and getting colder, but it is exhilarating. Bob often walks while I swim. 

Very few swimmers brave the chilly waters.

If all is well and the numbers continue to go down, Phase 2 begins on Dec. 15. Travel throughout France will be permitted. Cinemas, theaters and museums will reopen. The 9 p.m curfew will still be enforced, with the exception of Dec. 24 and 31. Ski resorts will not reopen for the holidays.

Restaurants and bars will have to wait until Jan. 20 to reopen – Phase 3. This is devastating for the struggling industry. 

Outdoor markets have stayed open…my joy.

Take-outs have never been popular in France, with the exception of pizza. That has changed. To survive, many restaurants now offer carry-out meals. We recently stopped by a tiny, nearby Moroccan restaurant. A sign outside listed the menu of the day available to take home. Our favorite fish, dorade (sea bream) , was featured. We rang the bell. We would need to wait 15 – 20 minutes, the owner/chef told us. It was cold. He invited us in, pulled the drapes to hide us (restaurants are not permitted to have customers inside). He let us order wine, even brought a dish of tasty olives, to enjoy as we waited. “It’s been so long,” he lamented.

It was such a treat – a glass of wine in a restaurant. The fish with potatoes and veggies was delicious. We will do this again and try a Moroccan special, but he urged us to call ahead and order. He can’t risk hiding us inside again.

Hidden inside the tiny restaurant, we enjoyed an apero, wine and olives — . fabulous.
Take- out food stands are popular.

Today we had a take out lunch, kebab, from a stand across from the beach. Noisy, hungry seagulls joined us as we sat on a seaside bench with our treats. Blissful.

Seaside sandwich with the seagulls.

The French are not happy with life under lockdown. As everywhere, the economic consequences are dire. They complain, but for the most part, they comply. Almost all wear masks and social distance as much as possible. They take the health threat seriously and do not consider it a hoax nor a conspiracy. 

Black Friday, a retail extravaganza, has become popular around the world. French retailers were very upset as the original lockdown restrictions do not end until tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 28, so they could not open for this great opportunity to make up for lost revenue. Saved by the government. In France, Black Friday has been officially postponed until next Friday, Dec. 4.

You won’t find me standing in line for bargains.  I’d rather chill at the beach.

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Cat’s Meow in Monaco

They were not impressed, excited, nor interested. Stretched out in their large cages, they did what cats do best: Sleep. The 145 cats entered in the first international cat show of Monaco were quite content to catnap through their two days of glory. That’s how cats spend some 15 hours per day, even as many as 20 hours – snoozing. No need to let a cat show interrupt your beauty slumber.

When it was their turn to be in the spotlight, on the stage to be examined from tail to ears, they were tolerant, seemingly bored. No doubt many of these champions and would-be champions had been down this road before.

Such is the life of fancy cats. I love cats. I have three, but mine are your basic alley-cat variety – all rescues. Nonetheless when I learned of the cat show in nearby Monaco, I convinced hubby (not as enamored of felines as I am) to join me to check out the cats.

Enormous cats. Hairless cats. Long-haired cats. Cats of all colors. Thirty-nine different breeds to admire. I had no idea there were so many kinds of kitties, but I learned that The International Cat Association (TICA) recognizes 71 standardized breeds.

The favorite, most popular breed is the Maine Coon. These cats are big – huge. I was smitten with Pegase de Nikko Coon, a big boy who weighs in at 10 kilos (22 pounds). His proud owner, Christiane Phily, touted that he was still growing. His grandfather weighed 14 kilos (30 pounds), she told me. She has 20 of these giant felines known for their pleasant personality. “They are very impressive. They look wild, but they have an adorable character,” she said. Her starting price for a Maine Coon, about 1,000 euros ($1,170).

Pegase de Nikko Coon, a 22 pound, Black Silver Blackened Tabby Maine Coon.

Years ago, when seeking a replacement for my beloved Buddy, a large and affectionate black cat, I decided after all my years of owning rescue cats, I was entitled to upgrade to a genuine pedigreed pet. I wanted a Maine Coon. Husband Bob, who is more than indulgent of my passion for cats, agreed to drive to a breeder some 3 hours away. I had wanted a male, but there was only one young male for sale. He was pretty, but he cowered in the back of the cage, not exhibiting the extrovert personality of the breed. Price tag was 600 euros.

I thought long and hard. I pictured all those pitiful, homeless cats in shelters. I could rescue one for a small donation. Did I really want to spend 600 euros on a cat? This one did not convince me. We drove home catless. The next day I went to the local shelter and came home with not one, but two tiny kittens – my girls Simba and Oprah. Sisters (twins), they almost look like mini Maine Coons.

No pedigree, but adorable and cute: Kittens Simba and Oprah.

In addition to cats coming from all over France for a chance at fame, the cat show included exhibits of haute gamme cat food, “adapted to the carnivorous diet of cats” (I came home with some free samples), cat toys, trees, beds. One exhibitor offered information on animal communication by telepathy. She claims to communicate with pets and transmit their messages to owners. She also offers courses in “animal communication and magnetism.” If you wanted a portrait of your cat, another offered animal aquarelles.

A flyer for a new breed. Pictured is a female now in heat who was not at the show, but should be having kittens next year. I want one..

I had hoped to take some quality cat photos, but this was beyond my skills. The viewing wall of the cat cages was a sheet of reflective vinyl. The lighting was tricky. The backgrounds were dreadful. When not sleeping (boring photos), the cats were in motion.

It was easy to see the cats behind the vinyl wall of the cage, but not ideal for photos.

I tried. Below are some classy cats, plus my not-so-classy cats.

Pharron of Chanel’s Land, a Scottish Straight.
Simba, one of mine
My boy Filippo
Oprah, sister of Simba.
Bob more than indulges my passion for cats.

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See Today’s Taste for a winning pasta recipe featuring egpplant, one of my favorites.

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Oman: Living High at the Beach

Apero hour under palm trees, their trunks wrapped in golden lights. Reflections dancing in adjacent pools. Guests lounging in comfy sofas and chairs on an elegant, marble-floored courtyard. Multi-lingual, attentive waiters serving drinks and tasty snacks. It was impressive, pure posh.

As we soaked in the classy ambience at the Shangri-La Al Husn Resort, conversation turned to past travels. “I liked those places we went to where the roads were not paved,” Bob said. We have had many exciting adventures to third world countries where, not only are the roads not paved, but sometimes the electricity fails, hot water is non existent. We reminisced about some of our favorites: Trekking through the sand with only a flashlight to guide us through the blackness, dodging ruts and driftwood branches, to a tiny, primitive beach shack in Myanmar where the fresh fish was fabulous and the family proprietors became our friends; Riding ancient, rickety bikes through back roads of Senegal, following Abou, our congenial bicycle guide, who invited us to his wedding, a colorful, spirited event deep in the boon docks; Ducking out of our lakeside tent in Kenya for a middle-of-the night trek to the toilet on the other side of a field when a guide’s spotlight shone on a bloat (group) of hippos heading in our direction.

We saw lots of goats in Oman, including artistic versions at Al Husn.

So, what were we doing in this 5* plus beach resort in Oman? It was our last hurrah, a final fling. We knew that with advancing age and medical issues, those adventures we cherish were no longer feasible. Bob was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. Arthritis is taking its toll on my aging body. We decided to treat ourselves to a first class voyage. (We traveled in January. The trip was booked long before Covid 19 changed the world. )

Bob tests the waters. Al Husn hotel in the background.

Everything about our two-week trip was ultra – except airfare. That was, per usual, economy with extra leg room seats. 

The Shangri-La Al Husn Resort and Spa is about a half hour from the new, state-of-the-art airport of Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. The resort is part of a complex of three hotels. Our hotel, the priciest, was built atop a beachside cliff.

We booked half board at Al Husn. The all-inclusive price was expensive, but with all the over-the-top amenities, seemed reasonable.

Al Husn with the infinity pool and the Gulf of Oman
Our spacious room’s fruit basket was refilled daily. There was no extra charge for drinks, including beer and wine, and snacks from the mini bar. We rarely indulged as copious food and beverages were offered throughout the day.

 

Starting with breakfast: Mind boggling. Several rooms brimming with all manner of buffet selections to suit the tastes and customs of numerous nationalities, from Asian favorites, to smoked fish to sausage and eggs. The array of fresh fruit was gorgeous and intriguing – things I had never seen before.

There was also a breakfast menu, which, in addition to standard selections (scrambled eggs, pancakes etc.) featured specials that changed daily. I tried a different one each day. During breakfast a waiter or waitress came to offer the smoothie of the day, not to mention coffee refills.

No need for lunch after that, especially since breakfast continued until 11 a.m. You could linger on the terrace and enjoy sea and cliff views.

The private beach for Al Husn is small, nestled between the walls of cliffs.

More pampering at the pool or beach. As you arrive, an attendant greets you and leads you to a lounge chair, presenting you with, not just towels, but a mini cooler filled with bottled water, fruit juice and a refreshing facial spray. The lounge cushions are extra thick. Some of the lounges are king bed size. In the afternoon about 3 p.m., an attendant strolls by offering sherbet, featuring the flavor of the day – strawberry, mango, banana…

Bob found a poolside hideaway.

Since our hotel was atop a cliff, its beach, a walk down a pathway, was small, however, its infinity pool was huge. And, we could use the wide sandy beach of the adjacent hotels along the shore

High tea treats.

Not long after the sherbet pause, it’s time for a British break, high tea. Oman was a British Protectorate from 1891 – 1951. Tea (you can opt for coffee) is served from 3:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. on the same restaurant terrace as breakfast with the photo-perfect views. This time a waiter arrives at the table with a glass case enclosing three savory and three sweet treats. They were different every day, and  we ate them all.

No time to work up an appetite for the aperitif snacks. Apero hour is from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fortunately the snacks are petite, but delicious. Music is normally featured during the apero hour, but in honor of the recent death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who ruled the country for almost 50 years, music was banned in the country for 40 days. Even with music, Al Husn would be quiet.  No children are permitted at this hotel.

Cliffs at sunset.

Among the three hotels, we had our choice of six restaurants. Our package included dinner and wine at a buffet restaurant with amazing selections. We dined there a few times, but also tried the others: Italian, seafood, international, Moroccan and Middle Eastern. At these, we had had a budget of 25 rial ($65) per person. We had to pay for exceeding the limit which we often did. We like wine – very costly in Oman. A glass was about $19.50. But, hey, this was our splurge trip, and we did limit ourselves to one glass each.

Arabia influences the interior of Al Husn.

Al Husn means castle. We indeed felt like royalty during the 10 days we spent in this luxurious ambience. At times it seemed too much.   Yet, we enjoyed the serenity, the beautiful surroundings—not to mention all those amenities.

The complex of three hotels has 640 rooms, 180 of which belong to Al Husn. The staff, from 800 to 1,000 employees depending on season, represent 44 different nationalities.

Yes, it was a major splurge, but every penny well spent. As my wonderful husband often says, “You can’t take it with you.”  Covid aside, this was our last big trip and a perfect finale.

Orchids in the lobby at Al Husn
For more on Oman, use the search option above right for Oman.  There are three posts:  Oman’s Mighty Mountains, Oman: Luxury in the Desert and Introducing Awesome Oman.  Still more to come — Muscat, the fascinating capital.  If you want to know more about Senegal or Myanmar, do a search on those countries. I wrote several posts on each.

Today’s Taste, upper right,  features a refreshing summer salad, Cucumbers in Sour Cream Dill Sauce.  Click on photo for recipe and scroll down for more recipes.

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