Friday, September 24, 2010

Up and down and around the French Alps

There was no way around it. Lyudmila and I were forced to start out on a busy highway before we could venture off on our own down small country roads. This proved to be our first bonding experience.

Now granted, I was the one who put the junk in Lyudmila's trunk but certainly she could have tried to handle it with a little more class on the first day. We weren't a 100 meters into the journey on the main drag when a Mack truck passed. Still working out the jitters of life on the road, i got a little jerky with the handle bars, that set in motion a vicious commotion behind me, I stole a quick glance to see if two midgets were mud-wrestling on the back of the bike.

After repositioning some of the excess... umm... crap that I have decided to hump over the Alps, things seemed to settle down in the back and Lyudmila and I have enjoyed our time together ever since (more or less).

Here's a quick review of my recent accommodations, you know, trying to be like those fancy websites who rate the quailty of stay for hotels across the world.
Check-in went smooth enough, sure it was a little tricky rappelling with my stuff down the steep embankment but this little gem of a location, hidden from the road, was too good to pass up.
The shower, the pool, whatever you wish to call it was clean and fresh. Perfect after a long day on the bike. Sure, the hot water wasn't working but beggars can't be choosers.

The restaurant near the pool provided everything I was looking for. Comfortable chair, fresh baguette, meat, cheese and maybe a little wine, all with a view of the river.
The bed sufficed. I'm not going to rave about the cool breeze that found its way through the window all night. But the price (free) was right so chalk up the chill to a cultural experience.
My stay even included a continental breakfast! Although nothing says good morning like a 1000 meter climb over a moutain pass.
And finally, a few pics from the road. To say this part of the world is beautiful is a wicked understatment. I only hope some of the images below capture part of what the French Alps have to offer. And on a side note, I never would have expected Lyudmila to be so photogenic.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life on the road with Lyudmila

I awoke this morning under the centuries old roof of this farm house in Provence for the last time. Today begins a new adventure. Biking over the Alps to visit my friend in Torino. Loading my stuff on the back of my bike I was reminded by the words of Sir Ernest Shackleton who put an ad in the London newspaper before the ill-fated journey of the Endurance:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

I rescued Lyudmila (a dusty, lonely bike in a dark garage) from her french owner a few days ago, with some minor repairs she seems (at least at mile 0), up to the challenge. We go forward, in search of a new beginning, heading out into the unknown, hoping to see amazing sights, take some great photos, and meet interesting people along the way.

Of course I will not be alone, the first part of my journey I will be joined by my good friend Tom Kingen. His passion for life has guided me for many years and I look forward to reconnecting with him on the road.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Photo Essay: Cooking school in Provence

Salade Niçoise. A bed of leafy greens, some other colorful vegetables and a fat slab of tuna on top. Don't let the size scare you, it's a light meal perfect for a hot day.

The chef baking bread in an oven that was built in 1790. It is rare in this region to find such a large brick oven. Back in its hay day this oven would supply the entire village with bread for the winter. 
An Asian water lily resting in what was used as a lavoir, a washing station for clothes.
Half a lamb ready to be sliced up by the chef, but not before making the grapefruit vinaigrette for the herb salad...

Dorada baked in salt. An amazing taste once you have chipped away the fish from its salt bath.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Morning pickup

Last year about this time I was sent to pickup 16,000 pounds of Washington State apples. As I threw the bread bag to the passenger seat and started up the Peugeot I laughed at my new assignment:

1 pain aux noix
4 croissant
3 pain au chocolat
3 raison
1 bagguette

I crept down the gravel driveway (so as not to wake anyone) and reached for the volume. 102.2 Nostalgic has accompanied me on every drive since arriving in Provence. House of the Rising Sun (en Francais) played as I barreled down the windy road to the village of Condorcet.

On my way back from the bakery the sun was beginning to hit the hilltops. It was bright orange light found only at dawn and the makings of an amazing fall day in southern France. On one hill stood the ruins of a castle, the top in full sun, while the bottom was darkened by the remaining moments of shade.

I sped back up the mountain, darting around blind corners, the road no wider than one car. Still early, the road was empty except for me, my baguette and some hunters crammed in pickup trucks with dogs in the back in search of wild boar.

As I neared the farm house Nostaligic came through in a big way. Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones started to play. I slowed the Peugeot to the speed limit and savored the moment. Keeping a beat on the steering wheel, singing loud enough to scare off wild boars, and momentarily forgetting how much I wanted to devourer one of those warm pain au chocolats- I took in the moment for what it was.

A great song, a great car, a foreign country, a beautiful morning and not a care in the world.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Food for Thought – Andouille de Vire

This “delightful” pork sausage comes from the northeast corner of France, in a town called Vire. The word Andouille in French is a term used to call someone stupid, but according to the chef the word is used as a term of endearment, not as harsh as calling someone stupid in English. How this word became connected to this type of sausage is another story.
A slice of this smoked sausage reveals rings similar to that of a tree. These rings are made by stuffing 12 inch stripes of pork intestine, one by one, inside each other. How does it taste? I would say it has an earthy, smoked intestine taste which lingers after swallowing, long enough for your mind to formulate rather impressive images of pigs and their intestinal track.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

perfect day for a picnic in Provence

The Peugeot was packed with pate maison, Ratatouille, Tarragon roast chicken, Brebie cheese and some fruit from the market. After tossing in a folding table and some chairs, chef and I jumped in the car and raced through endless rows of grape vines towards Cheateau la Suze Rousse, an hour drive from our hideout in the mountains.
The vineyards were interrupted by small villages, their tiny streets seemed to be the only thing that lifted chef's lead foot -well that and the odd tractor/trailer pulling a load of grapes- (it's harvest time in Provence).  These unexpected slow downs evoked some entertaining expletives (en Français of course) from the chef.
Arriving at the castle, we set up for the picnic on a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky, only a fresh breeze which hinted at autumn's return. The meal went off without a hitch and after packing up I found myself back in the car listening to chef's humorous/enthusiastic discourse on wine, food, cooking, life, politics, women, etc.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fishing for Doradas at the market in Vaison

Front entrance to the farm house. Built in 1790, it's not a bad place to call home for a while.
The topic of discussion on the way back from the market in Vaison la Romaine (la Romaine because of the ancient Roman ruins in the city center) was Foie Gras (we had just bought some at the [french] super market, it's currently "out of season" -- so we, Chef and I, bought frozen Foie Gras, shhhh, dont tell anyone.) This lesson in questionable French cuisine took place as we ripped around corners in the beat up Peugeot (1980's), the fresh baguette danced from one side of the dash board to the other as the countryside whizzed by.

Seeing as I am the Chef's assistant it only makes sense that we took a walking tour of the beautiful little town of Vaison after we bought the Doradas (fish) for the first dinner at the cooking class, you know, some of that fresh white meat, caught yesterday just off the coast of Marseille.

Chef putting the finishing touches on dessert.
It was a rainy day in Provence, but the market went on regardless. We bought eggplant, then the fish, then tasted samples of some amazing nougat which Vaison is famous for, then bought some fruits, and finally the quintessentail baguette.

A view of the countryside as I eat and drink my way through the south of France.
I better run, my Creme Brulee is getting cold.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Down and Out in Paris and London

Although I am feeling neither down nor out, Orwell's (1933) book about poverty in Paris and London is befitting of my current situation. I equate the next chapter of this blog to a cross between Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Eat, Pray, Love...
"I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."
Down and Out in Paris and London p. 216
I'm not Paris bound (at least not yet, that story will come later) but rather to the south of France, to a tiny village at the base of the French Alps southeast of Lyon.

Just as Orwell slaved away in the dark corners of Paris' culinary underworld so too will I, if you call assisting a chef at a high-end cooking school the "underworld" of French cuisine. Armed with my camera and a hunger for adventure I continue along this nomadic journey into the unknown. Rest assure my fellow reader(s) I will pass along a tale or two whenever internet access permits.

Interested to find out what will come of this gig?
That makes two of us.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Of all the history that surrounds London none seems to match the mystic of The Globe Theatre. For the price of five pounds (about $7.50) I stood like a "groundling" in the pit last night and watched Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Thought to be one of the first plays he wrote, The Comedy of Errors was amazingly funny and a testament to Shakespeare's emerging genius.
A beautiful open air theatre, The Globe was reconstructed in 1997 based on records of Shakespeare's Globe (built in 1599) which burned to the ground in 1613 because of theatrical cannon that misfired during a performance of Henry VIII.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Walking around London

"Just lock the door and drop the keys through the mail slot when you leave" was my cousin's reply when I informed him of my 6AM departure to downtown London.

The best light for taking photos is dawn or dust, plain and simple. Having witnessed too many sunrises from the apartment I decided it was time to set out and have a look how London wakes up.
The sunrise over Trafalgar Square.
Getting out at Waterloo station I glanced around for Jason Borne then crossed over the Thames, in search of a cup of coffee. I had heard good reviews about Monmouth Coffee House, a small shop which opened near Covent Gardens in 1978 and started roasting coffee beans (from single farms, estates, and cooperatives) using old fashion direct-flame machines.
I found a seat on the bench, having arrived 10 minutes before the shop opened, only to watch as a flood of eager caffeine addicts rushed to form an informal line minutes before 8AM.
The door swung open and i found myself in a line with regulars who knew the routine. "You getting take-away?" a Brit dressed in biking spandex asked me. Not knowing my options and thinking that was the only option I quickly answered yes, the dumb look on my face reminded me of Mr. Bean.

The bikers passed and took a seat at the back of the tiny shop. Realizing I could/should do the same, I headed for the back and took a seat with a couple from Torino. Turns out space is limited so a "communal seating" notice is posted on the wall next to each hard wood table. The tables, located right back in the heart of the action gave the feeling like you were not only the customer but also an all-star barista. The tapping of extinguished espresso grounds, the explosions of steam from the machines, the pressurized white foam, all this caffeinated chaos taking place next to the tables.
Not pretending to be a connoisseur of coffee, I would like to say my cappuccino was mighty pure, leaving a pleasant fair-trade after-taste in my mouth.
The Italian couple was replaced by a sweet lady who had the look, sound and gentleness of an older Mrs. Doubtfire. Looking up from her newspaper from time to time, she would pass a question, "Have you ever been to a bull fight?" as she showed me a picture in the paper of a bull in a ring with its horns on fire. "I hope they (Spaniards) stop this activity, it's just so cruel."

I left Monmouth Coffee House and headed across town to the Churchill War Rooms Museum. This underground bunker gives a fascinating look into where Winston and his team pounded out strategies against Hitler's Germany.
The War Rooms provide a detailed look into those dark days when England's fearless leader declared "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few"
After a long but enjoyable visit to the War Rooms I found myself at the Grenadier, a tiny pub tucked back in a neighborhood at the south end of Hyde Park. This place has a great historic feel to it and feels like a little oasis away in the loud, busy streets of London. But you better hurry, the lease is up in 2015...

Once used as military outpost a couple centuries ago, this pub is said to be one of the most haunted places in London- after finishing a pint on an empty stomach I swear I saw Churchill in the corner feasting on Beef Wellington, his favorite meal.

Search This Blog