Thursday, October 18, 2007

My Maine Squeeze

"Now, if we catch a female with a carapace longer than this little gal here," says Captain John Nicolai, ambiguously brandishing a small measuring instrument in one hand and a live two-pound lobster, claws snapping angrily, in the other, "What do we do? We throw her back. There you go, little lady,” he murmurs, gently lobbing the thrashing crustacean over the side of the little boat, Lulu. “In less sustainable fisheries than Maine, you catch a five, six – heck, once I caught a twelve pounder – you sell it on the market for a good sum, but you’re killing your cash cow.” He goes on to explain that a larger lobster lays exponentially more eggs than a small one, and that large lobsters keep populations up in heavily fished places like Bar Harbor. “Now, what do we do if we catch a great big male? Any guesses?” (A little boy, the youngest of Lulu’s fifteen or so passengers, shouts “eat it!”) “Nope! We throw ‘em back. Why? Because a great big female can only pair up with a great big male. Every lady lobster’s got to find her perfect match.”

I imagine the lucky demonstration female, briefly and bizarrely airborne before sinking slowly down to her murky bed, perhaps to seek her perfect match. (Then I imagine the tender, salty-sweet lobster meat on a toasty, butter-saturated bun that I gleefully consumed on the roadside in Wiscasset the previous day, and admit that both images fill me with a similar warm-and-fuzzy contentment.)

Captain John brings the boat up alongside Egg Rock, a tiny islet harboring an old-fashioned lighthouse and a colony of seals, lounging in the low tide like absurd, great-eyed lumps. J squeezes my hand, and I feel the gentle pressure of his too-big engagement ring between my fingers.

Indeed. This lady lobster’s found her perfect match. Let me tell you how it went.

Bar Harbor, Maine, got its name from a sand bar connecting the mainland village to Bar Island, a small forested hilltop rising out of the sea no more than half a mile offshore. The bar itself, however, is only exposed at low tide, when it becomes a sandy path some forty feet across, lined with mussel beds that bubble and wheeze when the tide goes out.

We crossed the bar around three in the afternoon, collecting seashells and prodding at tidal pools as we went; by three-thirty we mounted Bar Island’s little slope and followed a dirt track through glades of apple trees to a field of long, sweet-smelling grass. We lounged there and talked softy and seriously, eating bruised sour fruits and watching a heron cross the wide blue sky. We laughed for a long time and then lay quietly, watching the autumn leaves turn to fire as the light changed.

Finally, we made our way back down to the beach. At first we thought that we had come out the wrong side and that the expanse of unbroken ocean before us was a mistake, but no – the bar was gone, the tide was coming in.

I started unlacing my boots. “Come on!” I shouted.

“What?” he asked me.

“We have to cross!”

What?” he asked again.

“The tide just started coming in, right? So it can’t be too deep – we’ll just walk across like Moses! What, do you really want to call the Bar Harbor police station and have them send the coast guard? Or should we just wait here until this time tomorrow?”

My sense of tides, it turns out, was woefully wide of the mark – tides go in and out not once but twice a day, and this far north of the equator, it’s a nine-foot difference between high and low. But J, though not an aquatically-inclined person, was no better informed than I – and, after successfully suppressing mild panic, he took off his boots and began to roll up his trousers.

I didn’t even hitch up my skirt - we anticipated no more than knee-deep. I should add that we were dressed for a romantic day of lobster-eating and window-shopping, not beachcombing and certainly not ocean-fording. But we resolutely tied our boots together, slung them around our necks, perched purse and camera bag on our shoulders, and felt the icy bite of the North Atlantic.

In no time we were up to our waists, and a half-mile of indeterminate sea stretched out before us. And it was really, really, really cold. By this time, a small crowd of tourist onlookers had congregated on the far shore and were waving and snapping photographs. J was beginning to panic – but we gripped hands, breathed in resolve against the cold, the current and the rising tide, and crossed the sea like Moses.

We emerged to applause, dripping wet and relief. After stripping down to our wet underwear, we climbed into our rental car, cranked up the heat, and laughed until we were warm again.

That night, under a sky filled with more stars than I have ever seen – and meteors streaking across them like a code only we could decipher – J asked me to marry him.

That was two weeks ago – and even after we left that land of vanishing islands, lobster love and autumnal fire, my life continues to be more vibrant, more delicious. My heart is full of gratitude, and I’m so looking forward to this season of celebrating – the harvest, the spooks, the fire in the hearth, and all our love for one another. Thank you all, as we reach for each other across these ephemeral high-wires, for being here to celebrate with me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In Praise of Salmon

Once, a long time ago, in a much greener place called Ireland, a young servant boy named Fionn mac Cumhail was preparing a fish for his master's supper. Now, his master wasn't just any master - he was Finegas, the legendarily wise Irish poet - and Finegas had spent seven years on the banks of the river Boyne, daily dropping hook, line and sinker in hope of catching the Salmon of Knowledge.

This one particular afternoon, seven years since he had cast his first line into the river Boyne, Finegas had caught that coveted fish, and brought it to Fionn mac Cumhail to prepare for his supper. Wanting the knowledge for himself, Finegas warned young Fionn not to eat a single bite.

Always a dutiful servant, unwitting Fionn obeyed, frying the fish just the way his master liked. But the salmon's flesh was rich and tender, and the buttery skin popped and sizzled in the pan, spattering Fionn's thumb. He gasped with pain and instinctively put his thumb in his mouth to cool the burn, tasting the savory salmon skin.

And that is how Fionn mac Cumhail became the wisest of the Gaels, leading their warriors ever to victory with his fantastic powers of perception.

So, maybe is isn't just those omega-3 fatty acids that make salmon the ultimate brain food! It is true, at any rate, that while farmed salmon plays host to dangerous levels of harmful chemicals like PCBs, an array of pesticides and antibiotics, dubious chemical color enhancers, and lower levels of omega-3s - not to mention hefty environmental risks - wild-caught salmon is pretty much the healthiest meat around. It's low in fat, high in protein, and full of healthful fatty acid chains that combat inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, some types of cancer, blood clots, and even depression. So much good-for-you-ness...and it still manages to be delicious!

All that said, wild-caught fish are not risk-free, especially environmentally speaking. Many fish (though, notably, salmon is the exception) have an extremely high mercury content, which can lead to nerve-poisoning and irregular development of the nervous system in babies; also, nearly all species of fish - especially the big ones like cod and salmon - have rapidly diminishing wild populations. Wild Alaskan salmon, which is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, is your best bet, according to Seafood Watch; other Pacific salmon (Washington, Oregon, California) is a decent alternative. Farmed and Atlantic salmon should be avoided. You can download their free printable wallet-sized nation seafood guide here; they also offer regional guides.
In January, Dingle Town's burgeoning tourism industry is still a faint glimmer on the horizon, and in the early hours of a brisk Irish morning, the steel-gray clouds match the pavement of the town's empty streets. Seabirds wheel over the fishing boats; a lonely vendor peddles oysters, halibut, and glistening slabs of fresh-caught Atlantic salmon out of a cart on the pier. A brilliant rainbow appears, and J and I take it as a sign of good fortune - we couldn't resist, the Seafood Guide be damned.

Visiting small towns in Ireland in January has its perks - we were the only occupants of the Grapevine Hostel, which had beds for at least thirty. Its generous manager built a cozy coal fire in the hearth and let us have the run of the place; we made good use of a well-stocked kitchen, a local grocery store packed with Irish potatoes and $1/lb KerryGold butter ("This costs eight dollars in New York!" I shrieked, to J's general embarrassment), and a weathered copy of a paperback cookbook called Festive Food of Ireland. The recipe, as best as I can remember it, essentailly called for poaching the salmon in saltwater and serving it with a sauce made from egg yolks, butter, lemon juice and parsley. I pan-seared the fish in olive oil with salt and pepper, and adjusted the sauce as follows:

Salmon in Irish Butter Sauce


1 plus 4 tablespoons butter
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup cold whipping cream
1 egg yolk
Juice if ½ lemon
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
½ teaspoon dried tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste


Melt 1 tablespoon butter in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add shallot; sauté for 1 minute. Add minced garlic; sauté for 1 additional minute, or until garlic begins to brown.

Add wine; increase heat to medium and let simmer until wine is reduced by half, about five minutes.

Reduce heat to low. Whisking continuously, add cream; add egg yolk while mixture is still cool. Add remaining butter, one piece at a time, whisking continuously, adding more as the previous piece dissolves. Mixture should thicken slowly (if it thickens too quickly or begins to “scramble,” remove from heat and add lemon juice immediately).

Remove from heat when all butter is melted and sauce is sufficiently thick. Stir in lemon juice, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve over poached or pan-seared salmon fillet.

Serves 2.

We enjoyed it with Irish mashed potatoes, stewed mushrooms and brown bread, next to the fire, while the rain fell on the roof.

Six months later, salmon continuous to play a fortuitous role in my life; good fortune comes in the form of Annie, the proprietor of my local fish market in Brooklyn, just around the corner from my house. J and I eat Annie's fish about once a week, but I find myself visiting almost daily, just for the company - fittingly enough, my friendship with Annie began with an Irish barter: a fillet of her salmon for a loaf of my Irish Soda Bread.

Annie explains her business this way: she and her husband had planned to retire, but after less than a year - and these are her exact words - they were bored, so they opened the fish market in Bed-Stuy, whose burgeoning Caribbean community demanded good fish at good prices, and a lot of it. Today, boredom isn't the problem: Annie's husband fetches fresh fish from the Bronx fish supplier every morning - at 1:00 AM! "You have to be there early to get the best fish," she explains.

And they certainly do have the best fish. In early spring (before the summer heat made eating thawed raw fish from the market inadvisable), I sliced Annie's brightly-hued wild salmon filets and cured my own gravlax with this simple recipe:

Home-Cured Instant Gravlax


1 salmon filet (no skin, about 12 oz.)
1 tsp. fine sea salt
¼ tsp. sugar
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped dill, if desired


Thinly slice filet into about ten slices. Spread out a two-foot-long piece of plastic wrap on the counter.

Mix salt, sugar and pepper in a small bowl; sprinkle half the mixture over one side of the plastic wrap. Arrange salmon on top of salt mixture so that no slices overlap; sprinkle remaining mixture evenly over the top, along with dill or other herbs, if desired. Fold plastic wrap over and wrap edges up to seal.

Place package on a platter or baking sheet and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to one day. Weight package with a griddle iron, or other heavy refrigeratable items (I use pickle jars!) to expel liquid and hasten the curing process.

To serve, remove plastic wrap and garnish with capers, olive oil, sliced red onion, or crème fraiche – or serve with cream cheese and a fresh bagel!

This recipe takes less time to cure than most gravlax recipes because the fish is pre-sliced, rather than cured whole. If you are concerned about the safety of eating raw or home-cured fish, read this informative guide.

And finally, for those of you inclined to fully cook your fish before you eat it, let me refer you to this excellent recipe for Grilled Salmon with Tomato-Olive Salsa - a simple, delicious alternative to the usual butter-lemon-parsley number than gets prepared all too often in my kitchen. Eat up!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I Missed You, Too

Sometimes a place can steal your words. Not even from your lips - like a breathtaking sunset - but from your heart: that warm little room whose walls and ceilings you thought you could define with well-arranged, concise sentences. But then suddenly a cathedral or an island or a mountaintop slips in and detonates the whole thing, exploding all that subject-verb chinking you've so meticulously laid into place, as the understanding of place makes new room for itself.

Ireland silenced me for awhile. I hope to be able to share glimpses of that saturated green-and-grey place with you as the words come back.

Then changes set into my life at a pace rivaling puberty - from the moment I stepped off the plane in New York with a four-foot-tall backpack and no home to come home to, or even enough American money to use a pay phone and arrange a hospitable couch.

In those first three weeks we slept on several couches (bless you, dear friends, if you're reading) and the floor of a temporary sublet, inspected nearly forty apartments, found a home that suited us, and J started work - all while still living out of the same backpacks that had sustained us through two months of traipsing through Europe! (It's a good thing his office is generous about their dress code.) Though we promptly moved our possessions out of storage, these consisted mainly of books, clothes, and an appalling assortment of kitchen appliances - we had sold what little furniture we had along with our old three hundred-square-foot apartment in the Village. We spent a week sleeping on a heap of coats while we went about acquiring furnishings and arranging various means of transporting them. (This was no small feat.)

Finally, weeks later, in a place I can call "home" for the first time in awhile, I began to grow things in my garden. Between cultivating my home, my neglected friendships, my connection with a new neighborhood, and my impressive diversity of herbs and flowers - there hasn't been much time to grow my culinary acumen or myself.

And yet (my sitemeter tells me) you've been waiting for me. You continue to visit Pie in the Sky, to leave imploring treatises in the comments. Thank you for caring. Sorry I've been MIA for good long while. I think I'm back now.

Life is pretty good - I'm happy, I love Brooklyn ( more on that later), I'm cooking a lot, and I'm enjoying this stint at homemaking and gardening. But I'm trying not to stagnate. Maybe you folks can help. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I suspect Pie in the Sky will be undergoing some serious renovations in the coming weeks - my paltry offering in exchange for your patience and loyalty. I'm teaching myself web design! We'll see where that goes.

I've also invented the #1 Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe EVER. So don't touch that dial, folks...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Fortified: Carcassonne to Catalunya

There's nothing quite like a taxi driver dropping you off at the entrance of a castle under a full moon and giving you the directions just over the drawbridge, second left past the fountain. You can't miss it, it's just next to the outer wall of the fortress.

Carcassonne, a hilltop city in France's Languedoc region that has been fortified in various permutations since 100 BC, is straight out of a medieval fairytale, complete with moat, two rings of ramparts, and 53 turreted towers. The historic buildings along its cobbled, narrow streets house thriving shops and restaurants that range from a few embarrassingly touristy spots to traditional French cafe fare to bistros sporting Carcassonne's signature dish, cassoulet, a white bean stew regionally served with duck confit or partridge. But, having developed a certain mistrust for regional French cuisine after the bouillabaisse incident (and knowing that we would need our appetites for local cuisine in good form for Ireland), we limited our dining in Carcassonne mostly to the confections of a nearby patisserie. We spent three days inside the castle walls, exploring the 9th century basilica and reading medieval fantasy novels to each other in the archery-nooks of the outer walls (Wizard of Earthsea, for you curious readers - an indulgent slice of fiction between Apollinaire and Joyce/Swift/Heaney. J and I try to make regional narratives a part of traveling whenever we can, but after Rimbaud, we needed a break from French literature.)

Our one futile expedition beyond the castle walls and out into the Lower City proved that we should have stayed inside. We were trying to see a movie - an American movie - at the local cinema. We had had wonderful success with this in Paris when we saw "Babel" - the trick is to make sure that the movie is in its original format and subtitled in French, rather than dubbed. "Babel" was particularly interesting because, though much of the film is in English, a lot more of it is in French (Moroccan), Japanese and Spanish. So we had to interpret those parts as best we could with the French subtitles, which might have been more annoying if the movie's theme hadn't been the problems that exist in inter-cultural communication. Anyway, I digress - at the theatre, most of the films (READ: every one but ours) were marked "V.O." As a voice-over artist myself, I was familiar with this abbreviation and assumed, naturally, that it indicated that those films were dubbed. Thankfully, the movie we wanted to see was V.O.-free, so we bought an armload of movie snacks* and settled into our seats.

Short version: "V.O." means version originale. Thankfully, they congenially made fun of us and refunded our tickets. We went back to the castle.

*Best snack EVER: Nutella Snack & Drink. A healthy serving of Nutella that puts the frustratingly teensy smear in Cheese 'n Cracker Snack Packs (with the little red stick) to shame; crispy bread sticks to dip in it; and peach iced tea to wash it all down. All neatly packaged in a sexy cylindrical canister, complete with straw. I love Europe.


We watched the French coastline turn into the Spanish one from the train. The hills dried out and the roof tiles turned orange, but the sea was still the same radiant blue. We stopped for our first Spanish lunch in Port Bou, just across the border.

After the collective hours we had spent in France looking for something we could afford on menu after overpriced menu, Port Bou was a Catalonian heyday. Wedged into a booth at a local diner, we found ourselves drowning in sumptuous gambas al ajillo, ham and cheese croquettes, crispy baked chicken, garlicky mushrooms. The baguettes had gone bad at the border, but everything else was salty, delicious and mercifully cheap. For dessert we had a regional specialty, creme catalan, which is sort of a less delicate, flan-ier version of creme brulee. I loved it.

Barcelona was cooler than we were. Every beautiful Catalonian was out in slender, well-dressed, dredlocked regalia; our bright-hued hostel was packed with weekending teenaged Belgians and Australians in town to party. I felt old and tired during this part of the trip and attracted a brief cold that dampened our adventuring somewhat. But I do remember Barcelona's food! What diverse decadence we enjoyed there - from creamy gelato to sparkling cava.

Getting sick makes me want sushi. I guess that not everybody shares this particular craving, but there's something about the simple, healthy flavors of fresh fish, seaweed, miso and green tea that restore me a bit. So we sought out a sushi bar for lunch on the pier, just across from the enormous monument to Columbus. It was early, but we were so hungry that we had a round of tapas at a bar next door while we waited for the Japanese restaurant to open. What a mistake! The Japanese "lunch buffet" advertised outside for €7 was, in fact, a circular conveyor belt dotted with what was effectively Japanese tapas. It efficiently circumscribed the room and passed back into the kitchen to be refurbished with fresh sushi rolls, slices of salmon, steamed dumplings, seaweed salads, spring rolls, fried rice, butterfly shrimps.

That afternoon, we wandered through Barcelona's largest outdoor market, the Mercat de la Boquería, where we saw ostrich eggs and braces of conies and I tasted a mangosteen (thanks, Phil and Deborah, who told me to try them!).

My other choice culinary memory in Barcelona was dinner at Botafumeiro, benefacted yet again, in celebration of the eve of J's 21st birthday. Renowned for its seafood, Botafumeiro offers a dozen kinds of shellfish - all displayed in tanks at the entrance - and a delightful array of fish dishes. J ordered the some of the best cured salmon I have ever had (and a certain reader who cures her own salmon knows that I have had some really good lox). I ordered a half-dozen oysters that were good but unremarkable, and also a platter of sauteed baby artichokes that were, honestly, my favorite part of the meal. J's idyllic gambas al ajillo (redux) were almost lobster-like in flavor, and to top it all off, the generous and attentive maitre d' supplied a complimentary bottle of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) in J's honor. The celebrating continued when we returned to the hostel to a chorus of slurred voices in a cacophony of accents belting out happy birthday.

Monday, February 12, 2007


An artery through Provence, the Rhone river fans out at its mouth into a marshy spread of ventricles to the sea. This region, called the Camargue, is host to a wildly different sort of habitat - and tourism - than much of the rest of France. Southward beyond Arles, industrial farmlands give way to an expansive mix of freshwater and saltwater marshes; they are home to the muskrat's whiskery cousin the ragodin, dozens of species of migratory birds, and a pure-white breed of wild Arab horse that, along with the hulking black bulls tended there, has made the area famous for its gardiens, or cowboys.

It was through this unexpectedly wild place that we sought our seaside treasure, Saintes Maries de la Mer. This sleepy beach town, popular in tourist season for its oceanfront horseback riding, has another more pious claim to fame: it is said to be here that the three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe) came ashore after witnessing the empty tomb and the resurrection of Christ. Two of them apparently became beloved members of the community, and the weathered stone chapel (previously a Roman church, and a Celtic worship site before that) houses their relics. But a fourth character in the story remains a mystery: the beautiful Saint Sarah (also known as Sara-la-Kali, or Sarah the black). Her reliquary, as well as a beautiful wooden sculpture of her, are housed in the chapel's dark crypt amid a shrine of flickering prayer candles, and date back to the same interminable time as those of the two Marys. Her origins are unknown, but sources speculate variously that she was a servant to the Marys, another follower of Christ, or an African queen. The reasons for her sainthood are likewise unknown, but she has become the patron saint of gypsies, and each May there is a ritual gypsy pilgrimage to Saintes Maries de la Mer. Saint Sarah's reliquary is lowered from the chapel ceiling, and those visiting nomads reach for the healing power a touch is said to confer. Sarah's statue is then paraded outside, along with the statue of the two Marys in their little boat, which is taken down to the sea in a great procession.

But in the winter, this quiet little outpost confers a secret sanctity that goes deeper into the earth than even the chapel crypt, and farther out into the sea than the holiest vessel, as the rituals of human migration intersect those more ancient sacred patterns of beasts, seasons, and the sea. Strange encounters happen between migrants in Saintes Maries de la Mer, that hallowed place for travelers - tourists among them.

The first strange and wonderful thing that happened was at dinner. As we finished sopping crusty baguettes in the garlicky broth at the bottom of a steaming pot of local mussels, a pleasant, if limited, dialogue began between the adjacent table, who spoke little English, and ourselves. An older couple from north of Arles visiting their seaside home in Stes. Maries, they were excited to practice their English and happy to offer us advice about how to see the Camargue. (Our delightful hostess, who dropped everything and knocked a cat off a table with a menu, aided in this endeavor, and drew an extremely unhelpful map on a napkin.) Conversation continued through dessert (delicious île flottante - an ethereal meringue "island" floating in vanilla custard), and we found ourselves invited over for aperitifs and conversation. Since aperitifs and conversation are what one does in France after dinner, we accepted.

What a cottage it was! Scarcely larger than the 300-square-foot apartment we left in New York, it had a traditional thatched roof, a blazing hearth, and a porthole-shaped window overlooking the sea. We sat in front of the fire and talked about the town, politics in France and America, the philosophy of education, the promise of our youth, the catastrophe of global warming, and the merry lives of our hosts, Jacques and Jeannette - all with squints of concentration as we strained to decipher the others' language. The two of them had retired from happily multifaceted lives to a small farm in the mountains west of the Luberon, where, as Jacques put it, "Jeanette cares for ten animals: one horse, one donkey, four hens, three cats, and myself." The mention of France's 1968 student uprising prompted Jacques to proclaim that it was "certainly not a revolution! One person dies - only one!" - at which point I had the opportunity to form my single most coherent, intellectual French sentance of the whole trip: "La mort n'est pas la revolution, monsieur." It was a long, splendid night, full of happy incomprehension and general goodwill, and a truly unique experience for a pair of young foreign travelers.

The next morning we set off on foot for the Camargue Ornithological Center, a bird sanctuary a few kilometers inland. We encountered a fair bit of wildlife along the way: the warm, white flanks of a Camargue stallion; several leggy egrets; a number of species of ducks; a pair of ragodins paddling through the marsh; and a black-and-white, robin-sized bird that we have since seen in every town we have visited (in France, Spain, and now today in Dublin). But the real surprise came just as we approached the Parc d'Ornithologie, when we heard a powerful squawking.

Most experienced tourists will tell you that visiting France in February is inadvisable. While we don't agree, and have found many reasons to visit France in wintertime (not the least of which is the lack of tourism), the benefits of summer visiting had not gone unnoticed: there was a chill, and many things were closed, and there weren't any flowers in Provence. Even truffle season was in its final, overpriced throes. The fermé feeling had been heightened during the hotel fiasco at our previous destination, and by the time we arrived in Stes. Maries, we had just about come to the conclusion that though we were certainly making the best of the "off" season, we weren't in France at exactly the right time for anything.

We were wrong.

We were in France - in the South of France, in the Camargue, in tiny Saintes Maries de la Mer, at the ornithological park - at exactly the right time for the flamingo migration. Not only that, but the freshwater ponds in the park are their winter breeding grounds for one month in January, and apparently the only one in France. There were literally thousands of them, shrieking and stalking along on their hot pink legs and turning their awkward heads from side to side and proclaiming their fiery wingspans like an absurd dance from Fantasia. Most improbably, they flew in pairs and trios across the sunset like pink sticks with wings. The whole display was deafening, showstopping.

(And we saw some other cool birds, too.)

All this we considered later, perched on the long, rocky promontory extending out into the sea: the chance meetings of migrants in Saintes Maries. Or maybe Saint Sarah arranged them, a traveler's blessings, the promise of good fortune for the next phase of our voyage.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Fermé (and Truffles)

We weren't sure our losing streak was over yet on the morning we prepared to leave Roussillon. Having come to terms with the fact that we had overpacked and were hauling around unnecessary kilos, we had sorted out the items we could part with and were taking them to the post office to send home (that's right, mom - nothing exciting in that box, don't even bother opening it, it's just sweaters). From la poste, our plan was to hike - with newly lightened packs - the fourteen kilometers to Gordes, the last of our semi-inaccessible Provençal destinations. But, after bidding a breakfastless adieu to our kind hotel proprietors and marching the uphill mile to town by five after twelve, la poste was, like everything else in town, fermé, closing its doors a purported five minutes earlier. Not a soul was in sight.

We deliberated what to do. All options were too expensive - the way to Gordes via several modes of transportation, another night at the hotel (a slightly more upscale splurge to celebrate surviving Parisian hostels and the Marseille ordeal), lunch at the one ouvert restaurant in Roussillon. But could we make it to Gordes on foot with such heavy packs? We decided that we would have to try.
It was an amazing seven-mile walk: a gentle sloping descent into the valley, a stroll through acres of vineyards, each vine trimmed into a gnarled winter fist. Gordes came into sight a long way off, white stone crests of chateau and cathedral against azure sky. The climb up was perilous and exhilarating; buildings hundreds of years old emerged out of the rock and sank back in again like unfinished sculpture. It took us a long time to ascend that last vertical mile into the city square, where little flotillas of ice drifted in the basin of an archaic fountain and dusk painted the white stones gold.

Every hotel in Gordes was fermé. We watched the sun set like a dissolving coin and felt the cold drift in under the moon, a day past full. We looked for caves to sleep in.

In the end, we were rescued by the only other tourists we ever saw in all of Provence - a Taiwanese family of five who were leaving scenic Gordes to go find sustenance in relatively nearby Cavaillon. They offered to take us to a cluster of hotels that was "just down the hill" and "very close by"; we accepted gratefully and piled into their small car with our large luggage. But we soon realized that they had meant "very close by" by driving standards, and that it would be an exhausting hours-long hike back up to Gordes in the morning. We exchanged a look of panic and requested exit at the first available lodging - a Best Western, radiating fluorescent welcome.
Abandoned in the parking lot, we weighed the eighty-euro fee, a full day's spending allotment and more, by our budget. We looked down the road after our benefactors' taillights; we looked up the mountain to Gordes; we saw only the cold dark of intermittent hotels and restaurants fermé for the off-season in both directions. Brave adventurers though we were, we had not packed for sub-freezing camping. Best Western it would be. And so a full 24 hours passed whence we ate naught but spoonfuls of marmalade from a jar in my pack, and two teabags from the reception stretched over several cups of tea.

The good fortune in all of this was that the Best Western turned out to be half a mile from a (miraclously operational) bus route to Gordes. Two buses daily - at 6:00AM and 6:00PM - and we were on both. We arrived back in Gordes before the sun, and followed our noses to the one un-fermé storefront at that hour: a patisserie, drawing the morning's first baguettes from the ovens. We sank our teeth into hot chocolate croissants and watched the sun rise over the chateau. What could be better?

I'll tell you what - A five-course Provençal truffle tasting menu and a bottle of local rosé with the person you love. We had discovered the Auberge Carcarille just outside Gordes on our way up the mountain, and went back for lunch the next day to indulge our truffle obsession. It began with an amuse bouche of truffled foie gras ravioli; the appetizer was a simple, exquisite plate of truffled scrambled eggs and butter-soaked toast. For my main course, I ordered a truffled fillet of Saint Jacques (a local French fish that I think is a bit like cod) with winter vegetables. The veggies were great, but I didn't care as much for the fish; the simplicity of the preparation (designed to flatter the truffles) left it bland and a bit dry. J, however, ordered lavander-honey-glazed pork loin with sautéed trumpet royal mushrooms, and it was truly spectacular. A large wedge of brie de meau followed, its core shot through with an aromatic vein of truffle. Dessert was a tower of chocolate cream with a ganache "truffle" center, drizzled with Grand Marinier syrup. We finished the wine and giggled a lot, driven by truffles into those conversational realms accessed only through potent fungi and long-aged cheeses (as well as a very few wines and the occasional risky slice of blowfish) - ponderances of the narrow way these delights tread between eroticism and death. We only accomplished a third of the walk home before collapsing in an olive grove and dozing for an hour in the afternoon sun. Such was the most indulgent afternoon of our trip - a tantric and philosophical exploration of the truffled palate.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bouillabaisse Is the New Pancakes, or, How Things Went from Bad to Worse

I don't particularly care for pancakes, as it happens. I find them gummy, too sweet, and generally over-filling and unpleasant affairs. I know this. But on many a hungry late-morning in a New York diner, their large, sweet simplicity becomes fleetingly appealing, and left to my own devices, I invariably order them. They arrive, thick and bland, covered in artificial syrup, and by the end of brunch the only thing I am full of is regret. Now, as I am otherwise not a person who often misorders, and never with any repetition, this phenomenon of ordering the wrong thing knowing that you won't like it has come to be known between J and I as "pancakes" - as in, "Mahi-mahi? Are you sure that won't be pancakes?"

That in mind, here is the story of how we took five kinds of transportation to get to one place, and how I had a meal I would have traded for a two-foot stack of poisoned flapjacks.


We left Avignon early in the morning after a day of laundering and general recuperation. Saddled with two forty-pound backpacks, we shuffled through a pile of train schedules, trying to plot the route to our next destination, Roussillon - a tiny hilltop town known for its local ochre-based masonry and overall quaintness. Practically inaccessible by public transportation, we knew getting there might involve a complicated series of steps...but little did we know just how complicated.

Theoretically, the way involved a train from Avignon to Apt, via Marseille. From Apt, we would take a taxi ten kilometres to Roussillon. We boarded the train, full of croissants and optimism.

Many reliable sources had advised us to avoid Marseille - and we fully planned to - but a two hour layover there made us think of lunch. And lunch made us think of Marseille's claim to culinary fame, bouillabaisse. Our handy Lonely Planet guidebook directed us to a string of restaurants on the Old Port, which we found without incident. In fact, Marseille's metro was impressively efficient! We strolled along the quay in the afternoon sun, reading menus and comparing bouillabaisse prices, salivating, until we found the joint specifically recommended by Lonely Planet. It was an expensive dish at €22-28 (depending on whether you ordered an additional half-lobster); this meal would be one of the few decadent splurges we would take on our trip, and would mean a couple of bread-and-cheese-only days to compensate. As we lumbered toward the door with our packs, a waiter waved from inside, Non, non! Fermé! We looked at our watches: two-thirty. Our faces fell, for the first thing we had learned about France was that the French eat at the strictest and most absolute times. Lunch is from 12:30 to 2:30 and no later; restaurants reopen at 7:30 and close at 9:30. Bistros that remain open all afternoon often only serve drinks between dining hours. We were not to have our bouillabiasse, after all.

But we were absolutely fixated on the idea. We elected to take a later train and stick around in much-warned-against Marseille, just for dinner. We passed the afternoon quarreling and sweating under our pack straps. At seven-thirty, we were back at the door of Le Merou Bleu.

Our waiter grimaced at our packs and had us shove them in a dirty corner. He sat us, recommended a wine, and didn't bring it. Twenty minutes after ordering, he informed us that they were out of the shrimp appetizer J had ordered. But we were hungry and forgiving, salivating over the promise of five-fishes bouillabaisse with scallops, mussels and jumbo shrimp in a decadent saffron broth, served with butter-soaked croutons and house-made saffron aioli.

The dish that arrived bore absolutely no resemblance to that description. Lumps of gritty fish flesh sat like oily islands in the yellow broth they'd been simmering in for hours. There were two mussels and one unchewable scallop; a tiny, sad shrimp, shriveled inside its shell, perched in the center of the bowl like a dead pink insect. The waiter returned and, with a flourish, presented me with an additional enormous bowl of the evil-smelling yellow-grey broth, as though the quantity in my orginal bowl might not be enough, that I might want to sop up this extra half-gallon of vile brine with my baguette.

Repellent, repellent bouillabiasse. Tragically disappointing; a new, crueler world of pancakes. At least he gave me a free dessert when I didn't eat it.

The Marseille metro, it turns out, closes at nine, and the only cabbie we could find (most reasonably eating a pizza, we thought) charged us ten euros to take us the three kilometres to the station because of our baggage. Naturally, we missed the last train. Lonely Planet recommended a hotel nearby; let us just say that we bolted the door, didn't go barefoot, and the next morning, I threw away Lonely Planet.

Our next destination, Apt, was interrupted by an inspiration to detour through Aix-en-Provence, incited by the "July" chapter of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. We were under the impression that a bus from Aix to Apt would be available; upon our arrival, evidence was to the contrary. We spent a forlorn hour in the Aix station planning an alternate strategy, followed by a comforting breakfast of croissants and hot chocolate to make our fate go down easy; to get to Apt from Marseille, we had to go back to Avignon.

So we did, by bus, and as there were no further buses to Apt, we stayed the night, a block away from our original hotel. Le sigh.

After that, things slowly got better. We passed the following morning in what had become our "usual haunt" - Pizza Rush, where we ordered large, steaming slices of pizza au saumon, creme fraiche et champignons. Made with a mix of mozzarela and gruyere, pizza in France is invariably quite good and more affordable than most other cuisines.

The bus to Apt got us there without interruption, and in Apt we found a taxi without too much difficulty. The B&B I had arranged turned out to be a bit of an uphill hike from Roussillon proper, but it was pretty and clean and the proprietors were wildly friendly. That evening we shopped for diner at a little market on a quiet street, tramped home, and enjoyed a fabulous spread of fresh baguettes, local saucisson and fromage, chocolate-orange marmalade, and a very enjoyable bottle of €3 red wine from the next valley over. It wasn't pancakes - or bouillabaisse - at all.


It should be noted that I've backlogged a bit, and that I have several additional updates that took place after this one. Fear not! Wonderful adventures - and truffles - yet to come!

Monday, January 29, 2007


Not much to report, just a lazy Sunday wandering around Avignon yesterday, since bus travel is futile on Sundays. Today we did laundry (!!!), imbibed oodles of hot chocolate (which comes in varieties here - even from automated dispensers - including chocolat chaud (hot chocolate), chocolait (a pun, hot chocolate with milk), and a third one that comes in powerful, brown-black half-cups. Chocolate, in fact, has become its own food group in France, and a main staple of my diet - often swaddled in a buttery, flakey croissant (the worst of which are still better than the good ones in New York).

Tonight we take on Marseille in search of bouillabaisse!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

La Tour d'Argent, and other tours

The shower at Aloha hostel has a button your have to push to start the water running. Like one of those automatic sinks in an airport, the water runs - with amiable temperature and decent pressure - for seven seconds, and stops. You have to push it again to keep it going. And again. And again. Your shower, ultimately, consists mostly of pushes.

Renting sheets tacks two extra Euros onto the price of each bed in a six-person dorm, a price you already feel is inappropriately high, considering the quality of the mattress. Instead, you elect to make do with the complimentary itchy wool shroud folded neatly there; you grimace as you recall a friend who contracted scabies in a hostel in Iceland; you reason that scabies live in mattresses and thus sheets, however clean, would not protect you; you assure yourself that bed pests are equally acquirable in fancy hotels and put the whole discussion out of your head. You roll over on your top bunk as carefully as possible (to keep the bed's wrenching shrieks to a minimum), plug your ipod forcibly into your ears as a barricade against the violent snoring of one of your (otherwise impeccably well-mannered and sweet) three Malaysian roommates, scroll down your "sleeping in hostels against all odds" playlist, select "peaceful ocean surf," and drift off.

Such is student accomodation; one expects nothing less from accounts of someone's requsite post-college whirlwind tour of Europe. One might not expect, however, a description of accommodations like these from a customer at that famous bastion of Parisian culinary history, La Tour d'Argent.

Lunch at La Tour d'Argent was awarded us by a generous family member; we had packed especially for the occasion, and got out of the push-button shower to don skirts and suit jackets. Our roommates looked at us with bewilderment.

A stroll along the Seine under the stern gaze of Notre Dame brought us to the door of La Tour, which seemed to open by itself as a swarm of staff came to greet us. Our ratty backpack was immediately snatched from us and sequestered in a coatroom/Room for Unsightly Items, and we were ushered through a lavish parlor dotted with the signatures of every sort of celebrity and political figure and into a manned elevator. Upstairs, we were whisked to a gorgeous windowside table for two overlookng the Seine; hors d'ouvres arrived immediately - little variations of puff pastry with unimaginably delicious fish mousses - along with a thousand-page tome of a wine list, and a large-nosed, humming sommelier with very resonant sinuses. I imagined him having different areas of them for sensing different fragrances in the wine. Several embarassing faux-pas later, we ordered from the prix fixe menu, which was itself an embarrassing €70. I started with a bowl of clarified lobster broth swimming with jullienned seaweed, transparent shavings of jerusalem artichokes, and tiny, boulliant cubes of foie gras ( I know, I know - but come on, guys! I'm in France! Foie is like its own food group here!). Following that, I ordered La Tour's famous canard - each duck is served with its own numbered certificate. My duck was something like duck number 1,187,000. I asked whether there had been une grande fete when they had reached a million; he replied that there had been.

My duck, served with roasted glazed pears, sweet potato puree, candied orange zest and a rich brown sauce, was exquisite. A parade of desserts followed, each more fanciful than the next. We refused €8 coffee and an impressive array of aperitifs, but in a courageous display of faux-aristocracy, J inquired as to whether we might have a look at the wine cellar.

Our obliging waiter arranged a tour, and down the elevator we went. It deposited us in front of an iron gate in an almost unlit room; the bellboy swung the chain of an ominous bell and left us in the dark. Moments later, a cellar-keeper (for what else would you call him?) trundled out of the shadows. He led us through cool, dark tunnels with high walls of dusty bottles; the oldest of which dated back to the 17th century. Altogether, the cellar's two subterranean floors amount to some 11,000 square feet, and by the time we got to the end of the tour, I was recollecting Edgar Allen Poe's dark tale, "The Casque of Amontillado," where a drunken intruder is bricked into one of the walls in a vast underground cellar. I was relieved when the elevator came back in sight.

Aside from these events, our days in Paris were full of the usual sights - the Louvre, the Musée Rodin, Sacre Coeur, a brisk night in the icy wind atop La Tour Eiffel. Café, kir and pastis. Cold expeditions in search of affordable dinner with no results; croissants and warm baguettes and crepes and croque monsieur instead.

Yesterday, we took the TGV (high-speed train) to Orange in the South of France. For the first hour of our ride, the broad countryside out the windows was blanketed in fresh snow, but by the time we arrived at our destination, the sky was bright and blue and the temperature a shade above freezing. We were in Orange, an otherwise rather unnotable town by tourist standards, to see first century Roman ruins. We were not disappointed - we were the only visitors that day, and had full reign of the quiet magnificence of that place.

The evening found us in Avignon, just to the south, regretting our choice of hotel, which turned out to be some seven kilometres outside the city. J found us a perfect new place just inside the ancient walls of the old city while I shivered in the depot; once we got settled, he went out and returned with a provençal pizza, which was smeared with crème fraiche instead of tomato sauce. It was hot and delicious.

Today we walked all over the Old City, taking in the narrow alleys and ancient stones; We explored the breathtaking Palais du Papes, where 9 popes resided between 1300 and 1400 AD. We ate pleasure-spasm-inducing French onion soup (which, of course, is simply called onion soup here) and a simmering vat of three-cheese fondue. It has been a wonderful day.

Tonight it's cold and I'm ready for warm blankets, a mug of tea and a game of Scrabble (our third so far). Have I mentioned the wind? The Mistral, the local winter gale and bane of all Provençal, is born from the collision of warm Atlantic currents and frigid Siberian ones, which collide in a frenzied torrent and blow south with enough force to topple over buildings and drive people mad. It arrived with us, belated in the season, a last winter kiss goodbye to Provence. Next week promises warmer temperatures.
I can't babble like this at every internet cafe or I'll run out of money before we reach Ireland! To everyone who offered advice in the comments on the previous post, THANK YOU, and keep it coming. I'm also always email-able at KATECROFT AT GMAIL.COM.

More soon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

First Day in France

The morning finds me on the steps of Sacre Coeur, the carousel whistling an infectuous tune, a camera in one fist and a baguette avec la confiture du marmalade au chocolat in the other.

Our plane arrived only a little late yesterday, and we made it to our hotel in Montmartre without incident (apart from some minor difficulty understanding how to aquire Metro tickets). My dormant middle-school French is serving me rather better than I expected, and we wandered around the arrondissement, observing the bizarre proximity of the pricey upper-class neighborhoods to the notorious sex district surrounding the Moulin Rouge. Looking for dinner in mid-afternoon on a Monday proved difficult (the French eat at eight or nine, and many restaurants close on Mondays), but we finally stumbled across a welcoming (if empty) Italian establishment. We ate here out of starvation, despite every guidebook's warning that Italian food in Paris is not to be trusted. We were not disappointed - though, if anything, J's trois fromage pizza tasted, well, French, and was dotted with lumps of tangy gorgonzola and brie rinds. My escargots were a little earthy, but the gorgonzola ravioli was better than many an East Village nook. My favorite part was the complimentary kir, a popular French aperitif made with champagne (or sometimes white wine) and cassis syrup or liquor.

We slept a shocking fourteen hours as a result of our jet lag, and woke barely in time to grab an underwhelming breakfast in the hotel dining room. Our plans for today consist mostly of finding our hostel (where we'll be for the next three nights) and a good cafe. After that - well, I'll let you know.

I hope this suffices as an intermediary return to blogging. If anyone has suggestions and/or recommendations for Paris, Avignon/Provence more generally, the coastline west of Marseille, Carcassonne and the Languedoc region, or Barcelona (this gets us to Febrary 10th) - please let me know.

Until next time,
Your Intrepid Explorer

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Out in the World, Home in My Blog


A (strange) fresh start.

Everything I own is in an 8x10 storage unit in Brooklyn. I have eight minutes left on my card in an internet cafe to explain it all -

So the short version is that though I may be leaving the country for five weeks, I'm returning to the blogosphere immediately. In some capacity.

The next five weeks hold in store (among many undiscovered things): a croissant on the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris, a biscuit on the bullet train to Avignon, truffles served in every manner possible in Provence, boullabaise in Marseille, a morsel in Barcelona, a Guinness in Dublin on J's birthday, Irish breakfast in Dingle, a hot tea on the cliffs of Moher. And home again.

And I'll keep you updated at every internet cafe. Time's up!

I love you all,

*Update: I am happy to say that every one of these culinary feats was accomplished. Hooray!