Joyeux Noel

This will be our sixth Christmas in Provence.  Hard to believe!   We always miss Germany at this time of the year.  No one does Christmas like the Germans with Advent wreaths, sparkling, tasteful decorations and those fabulous Christmas markets with hot mulled wine, tasty sausages, spicy cookies and delicious Stollen.  But, we've come to appreciate Provencal Christmas.

In these parts the big celebration is Christmas Eve with a grand meal amongst family.  If children are involved, Santa usually makes an appearance after the meal to distribute gifts to all.  We've been honored to share the festivities with the family of a former neighbor, Veronique, on two occasions.Noel 2006   Her sisters, their families, mother, grandchildren — all gathered at her home and all contributed something to the meal.

The Reveillon (Christmas Eve) meal is a very special feast of numerous courses.  Champagne and hors d'oeuvres mark the start, usually at 9 p.m. or later.  Then there's  a seafood course with oysters, as well as other delicacies such as shrimp and smoked salmon.  Foie gras is another favorite (more on that later).  At Veronique's one year we had a stew of wild boar for the main course.  Pere Noel (Santa)  arrived shortly after midnight.  After the gifts, eating resumed with dessert, and the party continued until 3 a.m.

In Provence, it's a tradition to have 13 desserts, symbolizing Christ and the 12 apostles, following the Reveillon meal. Dates, figs, raisins, hazelnuts, almonds, nougat, fresh and crystallized fruit and fougasse (a type of flat bread) are among the selections, usually accompanied by a sweet wine.

Two years ago British friends invited us to celebrate on Christmas Day following British traditions.There  were 10 of us for an extraordinary multi-course meal with, in deference to the French, Noel2.2008 foie gras, followed by  roast beef, numerous vegetables and that fantastic British Christmas pudding. The Brits put fun into Christmas with "crackers" — everyone gets one at his/her plate.  You pop the ends of your firecracker-like cracker to find a prize inside — a tiny toy, pen, mini note pad.  And, to add to the fun at that party, we all were given Santa hats to wear.  A jolly good Christmas. 

Last year I invited French and British friends for a Reveillon chez nous.  They all arrived with contributions.  I special ordered a large turkey  – a la Americain  – 18 pounds.  French turkeys are usually much smaller.  They were all impressed.Noël turkey 2008

I also prepared foie gras (oversized liver from a duck or goose that has been force fed).  This is a very controversial subject as many contend the poor birds suffer during the last weeks of their lives when tubes of corn are put down their throats.  As an animal lover I feel guilty, but foie gras is a wonderfully sinful pleasure — smooth, silky, rich and exquisite in taste.  As it is such a staple in the French diet, at least at festive meals,  years ago I worked for a weekend at a foie gras farm in the Dordogne in western France to learn more about the delicacy.  The geese led happy outdoor lives until they were brought indoors for the period of forced eating, but they did not resist the feeding, and they did not seem tortured. They were humanely butchered and every part of the carcass, not just the enormous liver, was put to culinary use. 

 Is this any worse than stuffing American cattle, which are grass-eating animals, with corn in disgusting feed lots?  Or crowding  thousands of chickens in dark pens and fast feeding them to the point that many are unable to move their fat bodies more than a few steps. See the documentary "Food," then decide. 

French love to discuss food.  Everyone is eager to give tips on foie gras preparation which is very tricky lest the liver get too hot and melt. Even my veterinarian felt obligated to relate his method  The recipe I followed last year called for the addition of Calvados and apples.  Everyone was pleased.

New Year's Eve means another Reveillon feast.  The menu may be similar to Christmas Eve.  This year we've been invited to celebrate with French friends. As food is foremost,  we even had a pre-party meeting to decide who would bring what, which wines would be needed, etc.  I just completed a foie gras cooking course, so I'm bringing the foie gras with two wines, Sauterne, a sweet golden wine which is recommended with the rich liver, and a dry Jurancon.

Wishing all a joyous holiday season and a very prosperous 2010 — and Bon Appetit!

Tracking down Truffles

Many, many years ago when I lived in Germany a French friend honored me with the privilege of accompanying him and his friends on a truffle hunt.  I had been intrigued by the mystery and mystique surrounding this prized and elusive fungus which grows underground.  After years of pestering him to join a hunt, he finally issued an invitation, but only on the condition that I would tell no one of the location where we would conduct the secret search.

We were in  northern France near the River Meuse where Regis, my friend, had a friend who supposedly Truffle8 frequently found truffles in the forest.  We set off into the woods, basket and a tool for digging in hand.  It was snowing.  It was freezing cold. Truffle season is from November through March. 

We started in an area of thick brush at the edge of the forest where a type of nut tree grew. We were told to look for a patch under the tree with no vegetation.  Truffles grow near the roots, depleting the soil of nourishment so other plants cannot grow on the spot.  We found many such spots and began digging, combing, sifting through the icy ground. 

And so it went, for hours it seemed.  I kept unearthing blackened, semi-decayed acorns, worms and roots — but nary a "black diamond," as truffles are called.  None of the others hit pay dirt either. Darkness approached.  The cold pierced my fingers like tiny needles. I was beginning to think it was all a hoax. 

The hunt ended sans truffles, but to reassure me that they really do find truffles, Regis' friend invited us back to his home where he proudly displayed a large jar filled with the knobby fungi.  And, his wife prepared  a delicious chicken dinner with truffles.

I am still in awe of truffle mystique, and now I live in southern France where precious truffles are big business.  Truffle markets and truffle festivals abound. There are even truffle masses where the earth's sacred treasure is blessed. Those in Truffle13 the truffle business belong to an exclusive "confrerie."  They turn up at festivities wearing their "uniform"– long black robes with huge medallions hanging from yellow ribbons around their necks topped off with broad rimmed black hats.  Consumers spend lavishly on the cherished delicacy, and restaurants charge dearly for dishes graced with this culinary gem.

I  was  thrilled with a recent invitation to join a truffle weekend with French journalists in Richerenches, a small town known to have the largest truffle market in the country.

Truffles have traditionally been associated with Perigord in southwest France, but we were in southeast France.  In fact the Porsche of truffles (there are several varieties) is known as the Perigord truffle, but it is cultivated in these parts where farmers plant acres of oak trees which are excellent truffle hosts.

Our truffle weekend got off to a tasty start with a Friday evening four-course meal, each course prepared with truffles. The first course was "brouillade," soft scrambled eggs with truffles.  This dish is rated as being the best for appreciating the earthy truffle taste. Presentation — served in an egg shell — also got high marks.  The journalists, mainly food writers, were critical of the main course — chicken, cabbage and risotto all prepared with truffles.  They detected little truffle taste.  I had to concur. The reason: it's' too early in the season as truffles don't mature until Christmas, they concluded

Nonetheless the next day at the truffle market there was plenty of buying and selling of black diamonds.  This market is primarily for professionals.  Growers come with sacks of the treasure and  make the rounds of the buyers to see who will offer the best price. The latter set up shop under their car trunk hoods or the back of vans where they have a small scale to weigh the merchandise.  They hold the truffles up to their nose for a whiff of the strong scent, examine the fungi carefully, often scratching Truffle4 the surface to check the interior color.  The darker the color, the more flavor the truffle will have.  It's all shrouded in secrecy. The buyers and sellers want no photographs.  Most did not want to talk to journalists.  It is said they fear thieves. No doubt that's not all they fear.

A sizeable quantity of truffles is worth thousands of euros, and truffle theft is a big problem.  At this market the going rate was between 150 and 230 euros ($225 – $345) per kilo (2.2 lbs.), but throughout the season the price will fluctuate depending on quantity and quality of available truffles.

After lunch in a crowded community hall — truffle omelet — we set off to a truffle farm where we accompanied Christian Allegre and his dog Chou Chou, a small, sleek, speedy black Labrador, into the fields where oak trees grew. "The dog is the master.  We follow him," Allegre said.

Chou Chou went crazy, running madly from tree to tree, sniffing the ground, then often furiously Truffle10 digging.  Allegre was quick on the spot, rewarding Chou Chou with a treat. The lively canine let him take over the digging with his truffle tool. He did uncover truffles, not on every spot, but frequently.

Allegre told us about the trees, truffles, dogs — and thieves. The latter are known to come to truffle farms at night early in the season after a rain, marking bare spots where the earth is raised indicating a truffle is growing underneath.  They return later — also at night — to  unearth and carry off the riches.

The best and biggest truffles are found after a full moon, Allegre said.  Labradors make excellent truffle dogs because they are "calm, gourmands and attached to their master," he explained.  Pigs were once used to sniff out the fungi, but they are too big and they can be mean. As to the trees, they must grow for eight years before their roots  will nourish truffles.

Why he is enamored of the black diamond?  "It's magic.  It's mysterious. It's a product of deception."

Our truffle ramblings ended with a taste of truffle ice cream prepared by a noted pastry chef: creamy vanilla with black specks of truffle that was surprisingly good.

Click on the photo of truffles in the Photo Album for more photos.

 

Back in the USA

Our recent trip to the US  got off to an ominous start.  Our flight from Marseille to Munich for the first leg of the journey was more than an hour late in departing.  We missed the connection to the transatlantic flight, and all Lufthansa flights to the US that afternoon.  We had to spend the night in Munich which wouldn't have been bad had we been in the city, but we were in the boonies at an airport hotel far from excitement.  At least Lufthansa paid for the hotel and dinner, although the latter was pathetic.

Fortunately all was on the upswing after our Munich misadventure.  We had wonderful family reunions, ate some very tasty food, did major damage to the credit card with power shopping, admired the exquisite fall colors, watched some interesting and informative television, and celebrated Halloween.

The trip began in Winchester, Va., where  Bicycle Bob's son Rob, wife Buffie and two grandsons, Samuel (6)and Lang (4) live with their gorgeous, three-legged cat, Shitake, (9). We visited an apple orchard where the boys delighted in picking apples.  We feasted on delicious apple cider and apple cider donuts. Blog4

Bob's daughter Kellie, a highly successful NYC graphic artist,  and boyfriend Michael joined us for the weekend and a visit to the Marterella winery, owned by Rob's boss, where we sampled excellent wines.  We learned that many former Virginia tobacco fields have been planted with grapevines, and wineries now abound in the area.

We joined a stream of cars on Skyline Drive which is the northern part of the Blue Ridge Parkway offering superb views of the Blue Ridge mountains, especially picturesque bathed in the orange, gold and red tones of autumn. 

Food was also a highlight of this part of the trip.  Rob grilled fish, beef filet and lamb. You can't beat American beef. We ate at a Mexican restaurant, a Thai restaurant featuring sushi, and an incredible supermarket, Wegman's, with counters offering a wide variety of hot food to eat in the restaurant section. 

Supermarkets are indeed super in the US. So huge and clean and offering such amazing selections.  Bob went overboard in the cereal section, bringing four boxes of healthy kinds not available here back in his suitcase.  (In addition to being a bicycle addict, he's a bit of a health fanatic.)

The department stores are another delight.  I had a field day in Macy's in Louisville which was the next stop on our trip.  It's such a joy to shop where the prices are in dollars, not euros. Compared to France, US stores offer bargains in clothes, shoes, linens.  We had to buy an extra suitcase to get our purchases back to France.

Blog16 My mother has been a resident of an assisted living home in Louisville, Kentucky.  She's 91, and sadly in her last days with a variety of medical problems.  But, we had a great reunion.   Joining us in Louisville were my brother Tom from San Francisco; brother Steve, wife Yoshie and son Tai (13) from Boulder, Colorado, and nephew David and his girlfriend Sabrina from northern Kentucky.

We had a dinner together at the home where Mother lives, complete with a chocolate Halloween cake.  My mother is a chocoholic.  We took her to Graeter's, famous for homemade ice cream where she  savored her favorite flavor. 

As a dedicated foodie, I did some Internet research on Louisville restaurants before our departure. We followed the recommendations to Ramsi's Cafe on the World, a funky and fun place with an extensive menuI was knocked out by "coconut scallops served with horseradish Mandarin sauce, fried plantains and spinach Alfredo"  Bob was equally pleased with "Pastafari," a tangy concoction of  blackened grouper over Kentucky spinach with roasted potatoes, tomatoes and gemelli pasta. We liked it so much we made a return trip with the group on Halloween, that unique American holiday.

No one does Halloween like Hillcrest Avenue in Louisville.  Every house on this long street decorates for the occasion: ghosts, goblins, skeletons, witches, graves with moving corpses, pumpkins and orange lights.  Some even featured live entertainment on the porch — costumed dancers. Blog25 Two had bands in the front yard. Crowds come to take it all in on foot on Halloween.  We joined the masses for the macabre, crazy, fun experience.

In Louisville we stayed at a motel  where every evening we enjoyed informative TV — political news commentary by Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.  Much better than CNN International which we watch in France.

Before returning to France, we spent two more days in Winchester.  I headed into nearby Washington, D.C., to meet Jolene Carpenter, the Stars and Stripes travel editor based in the city who has been handling the articles I write for the paper with TLC for 10 years.  It was great to put a face behind all those years of emails, and to enjoy a truly  gourmet lunch:  autumn squash risotto with baby scallops and pomegranate oil at Chef Geoff's.

While in the city I also met Gene Kramer, an old friend from the Journalists' International Ski Club.  Gene, who has served as an Associated Press bureau chief in many parts of the world, gave me a tour of the National Press Club after we had coffee in the prestigious surroundings.

Indeed, it was a "bon voyage," but it's also good to be back home in Provence. 

(For more photos click on the cat in the middle column.)

We Should Have Stayed Home

Well, it wasn't quite that bad.  But more seemed to go wrong than right during our recent mini-trip to the Cote d'Azur and hinterlands.

We booked a hotel in Villeneuve-Loubet-Plage, near Antibes and Nice as we wanted to visit both.  I also wanted to swim in the Med, and this reasonably-priced hotel offered both a private beach and pool.  It  
rated a plus.  Minus went to Marineland in Antibes, noted for shows with dolphins and seals.  It's also a Coast23
big amusement park.  I was interested in the sea creatures, not the rides.  I had a VIP visitor's pass from Nice which was supposed to include entry to Marineland, but it was refused.   I intended to write about Marineland for an article on the Riviera.  Journalists usually get free admission if they are to give a place free publicity.  Not so at Marineland where admission was 35 euros per person. For both Bob and me the equivalent of $103 to see some dolphins and seals.  We passed.

Off to downtown Antibes to visit the renowned Picasso museum. We arrived in the city at lunchtime.  The tourist office told us the museum would be closed until 2 p .m.  We had lunch, walked around the port admiring mega yachts, then ventured to the museum a few minutes before 2 p.m. We weren't the only ones.  The long line waiting for admission was a shock.  And, it barely moved.  It would take at least an hour before we'd view a Picasso canvas.

We departed sans Picasso and went back to the hotel where I had a wonderful swim, although the waves were gigantic for the Med.  Getting in and out of the sea was a challenge, and I was knocked over by the powerful surges of water more than once.

Next day was reserved for Nice. We wanted to ride the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus to see some of the attractions we had missed on a previous visit.  It was a lovely ride with fascinating commentary via a headset.  Our first stop was the Chagall museum. A plus, plus for this impressive collection of the artist's massive works depicting Biblical scenes.Coast7

The city's famous Russian church was to be our next stop.  As we were about to disembark from the bus, the driver announced that the church would not reopen until 2:30 p.m.  It was only 12:30, and there didn't  seem to be too much exciting in the neighborhood.  So much for the Russian church.  We stayed on the bus, completed the tour, then enjoyed walking around Nice's marvelous old town.  We went back to Oliviera, a shop specializing in olive oil.  They sell 18 different kinds.  We had a tasting and purchased three different kinds — our trip souvenir.

Day # three was a planned excursion into the hinterlands above the coast. We stopped first at Eze, hiked up to the chateau ruins and exotic garden, took photos — great  views of the Med below — and meandered in the cobbled streets which climb the hill and are lined with trendy, pricey boutiques.  We drove on, stopping at another quaint tourist hill town, Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Maybe I've lived in Europe Coast18 too long and have become jaded.  To me, all these towns begin to seem alike.  

Our stay that night was to be at a bed-and-breakfast home I found via the Internet.  We arrived at Bar-le-Loup where it was located, inquired at the tourist  office about its location, and were given a map with instructions. It was way below the perched town and the route to get there seemed tricky.  We wanted to quench our thirst with a beer and admire the setting before  searching for our abode. Alas, the town had no cafes, no bars.  

Off we went, down the mountain, with several arguments en route as to where we should turn.  We back tracked several times, returned to the tourist office which was of course closed, finally called the home and were given more precise instructions. At last we spotted a tiny sign to the bed-and-breakfast and made the correct turn.  The road – single lane, bumpy — descended deep into a forest.  No houses.  Strangely, there were lots of cars coming in the opposite direction.  We had to pull over and let them pass.  Down, down, down we went.  Where was this place?  Finally another sign — another two kilometers. It was getting dark.  We knew we'd have to repeat the journey to go find a restaurant for dinner.  Too much, and not a good road for our Honda S2000 sports car.  We bailed out.

Let's just drive on to Gourdon, I suggested, a town way up the mountain where we had been on a previous trip.  It has an incredible restaurant, Le Nid d'Aigle, (Eagle's Nest) on the edge of a cliff, a spectacular setting with incredible  views.  We had hoped to have lunch there the next day.  So, we drove  up and up, curve after curve.  At the edge of the town, I inquired about a hotel.  There are no hotels, I learned.  The nearest hotels were back down the mountain in Grasse.

Coast4
Would we ever find a place to sleep that night?  We reversed course and drove down, luckily finding a hotel on the edge of Grasse.  I had tried to make reservations at the Nid d'Aigle that day, but there was never any answer, so the first thing on the morning of day # four, I called to make a reservation.  "Sorry, but we're full."

Now what?  No reason to drive back up the mountain if we couldn't eat at this fabulous place.  I relayed our plight to our hotel owner who recommended a restaurant on the coast.  Fine, I'd had enough of the hills and was ready to head back to the sea.

The restaurant near Cannes in la Napoule was lovely, but expensive.  I ordered a mixed fish/seafood brochette which was tasty but came with little else.  Bob had the dish of the day, fish, and dessert.  We each had two glasses of wine.  Cost:  70 euros (about $100), and I was starving two hours later. Unfortunately most of our meals on the trip were in this category: disappointing.

Enough.  We had planned a five-day get-away, but as our luck had been so lousy, we decided to quit before another mishap.

That being said, the Cote d'Azur is gorgeous — and we will go back. See my photos.  Click on the photo in the middle column.

Pedaling with Bicycle Bob

When we first met many years ago I soon realized that bicycling would no doubt be an important part of the relationship.  Skiing was my sport, but I liked to ride bicycles, too.  My idea of a ride was a leisurely hour-long jaunt on flat terrain.  That was sissy stuff to Bicycle Bob (BB).  The higher the hill, the happier he was.

Vaucluse18 Soon after we met he suggested we ride from his apartment near Stuttgart to the company Fourth of July picnic near the city airport.  It seemed like a nice adventure, so off we went.  The first few hills were a struggle, but I was determined not to wimp out –until we came to the killer.  It was long, never-ending, and very steep.  He was far ahead as I huffed and swore. This was not my idea of fun.  How could he do this do me?  I had to get off and push.  It was hot.  I was miserable, torn between anger and tears.

We made it to the picnic, but I was wiped out, drained, ragged.  I refused to speak to him until a beer calmed my spirits. I couldn't comprehend his dedication to this torture. Give me a ski slope. Fortunately the ride home  was mostly downhill, and fun.  Maybe it's because of skiing, but I love soaring downhill at top speed. 

I had a choice — tell him to ride by himself, or learn to climb hills on two wheels.  I've never understood those relationships where the guy goes off and does his thing on the golf course or at the bowling alley, leaving the little woman behind.  I wanted a together rapport.  I would have to conquer those hills.

Since those early days we've ridden thousands of miles throughout Europe, in Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, England. (I still hate hills and lag far behind on the tough ascents).  We especially like to set out on lengthy journeys of several days with our gear loaded into panniers.

 Our very favorite biking country is Switzerland where I mastered mountains — not just hills. The Alpine country is criss-crossed with nine national bike routes.  We've ridden six, all a joy.  With true Swiss precision, the routes are well marked with signs so you rarely need to get off and consult a map.  BikeGrisons-4 There are books accompanying each route with strip maps and symbols indicating when the going  gets rough (extra steep, heavy traffic, etc)  with alternate means of transportation suggested — train, bus, boat, even ski lifts.  We've used all.  Personnel were always very helpful with loading the bikes.  

BB even rode to the top of the Goddard Pass (elevation 2,108 meters) on the north-south route from Basel to Chiasso. There I did wimp out and took the easy way to the summit, a bus with my bike and gear and BB's gear.  The Lake Route, from Montreux on Lake Geneva to Rorschach on Lake Constance (500 km) was my favorite with incredible scenery.  BB liked the Jura Route, from Basel to Nyon (275 km).  We're hoping to find time next summer to add another Swiss challenge to our list.

Since we lived in Germany for many years, we pedaled lots in Deutschland.  The country's extensive network of Radwege (bike routes) is impressive, marked routes mostly off road on trails and lanes, through fields and forests, around towns and villages.  We enjoyed riding the Danube route to Passau, but never made it as far as Vienna.  In Austria, however, we did ride the Salzkammergut route around hills and lakes near Salzburg which was another winner.

It's thanks to  bicycling that we live in this part of France.  Years ago I joined a press trip to introduce a new velo (bike) route, 236 km around the Luberon in Provence. We only rode a small section, but I was impressed. I knew BB would like it.  He was nearing retirement and we had hopes of moving to France.  This might be the perfect area.

Mozart-8 Several months later we returned to ride the entire route.  Along the way we stopped at real estate offices and inquired about an unfurnished house to rent on a long term basis.  Most of the representatives we spoke with were discouraging. People rent for the season here, we were told.  Our luck changed in Forcalquier where an agent said she had not one but two houses to rent.  One was in the town of Cereste on our bike route.  We pedaled off and met her at the house.  It was perfect.  We immediately agreed to rent it and moved the following spring.

We've since bought a house and moved again.  Now that we are homeowners, somehow we don't seem to find as much time to ride as we had planned.  And, in the summer, it's often too hot as the terrain here is challenging.  BB gets his dose of hills. 

Now fall is in the air.  We're gearing up for more rides, but probably not up to the top of Mount Ventoux, the famous Tour de France peak.  BB once said he wanted to take on this mountain, but after driving to the summit, he changed his mind. The last six km are straight up.  He's happy to leave that to Lance Armstrong and crowd and cycle with me – even though I'm still far behind on the hills.  But, I get my revenge on the ski slopes where he brings up the rear.