Sunday, January 25, 2009

Late Nights in Madrid

Last weekend we drove to Madrid to meet our friends Debbie and TJ Bunka. They were in Spain’s capital for three days before heading to the Canary Islands. For us it was a great chance see friends and check out Madrid. The six hour drive down was oddly through a snowy landscape. Europe was just recovering from an uncharacteristic cold snap that dropped snow on unlikely areas, including the arid Spain countryside (and in our backyard in Pau).

Madrid is a lively city that doesn’t seem to sleep, and we did our best to take part in the liveliness. On our first night we spent our time in three tapas bars, enjoying the cheap wine, delicious tapas, and each other’s company. Somewhere between the jamón and the cheesy eighties music we lost track of time, and the next thing we knew it was 3 AM. We hauled our butts off to bed while the Spaniards ordered another round.

The next day we toured the extensive Prado museum and walked around the historical areas of Madrid. More time was dedicated to jamón, Spain’s best contribution to the culinary world. These cured ham legs are a national obsession. There are a variety of types ranging in price and flavour, the most expensive being a little black pig that is fed acorns. The meat is delicately shaved by hand with a knife, and oozes greasy goodness. We enjoyed several helpings, including some on the street immediately after buying a few slices at the Museo del Jamón.

That night we were much more disciplined and made it back to the hotel at 1 AM. We could easily have stayed out later, but the Bunkas had an 8 AM flight the next day and we had a long drive ahead of us. When Debbie and TJ boarded the shuttle for the airport at 6 AM Sunday morning, they said the streets were packed with partyers straggling home. Those crazy Spaniards!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In Flanders' Fields

On our last day in Belgium we rented a car and visited several World War I monuments and cemeteries. Of all the historical events that were taught in school, I seem to remember what I learned of WWI the most. I am not sure why that is; perhaps it was a particularly interesting subject to me, or maybe Mr Cool, my junior high social studies teacher, taught that subject with extra enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, just hearing the names Vimy Ridge, Ypres, and Passchendaele conjures up images of battles, trenches, and muddy fields. So it was a bit surreal driving through Flanders’ fields in our little VW Polo, passing by a commonwealth cemetery every few kilometers. It was a cold day with a thick ice fog hovering over the fields, limiting our visibility. The fog added an eerie element to our day. As we walked through the Tyne Cot cemetery, the resting place of almost 12,000 soldiers, we could not see the edges of the cemetery. It seemed as though the graves went on forever.

As we crossed into France and headed toward Vimy Ridge, the fog lifted and revealed a beautiful blue sky. We were fortunate because the Canadian monument at Vimy is very large and we would not have been able to appreciate it in the fog. The recently restored monument is the most impressive of the WWI monuments. The fields surrounding the site are off-limits to tourists because of the undetonated ammunition below ground (just as I remember learning in grade 8). The fields, originally flat, are now a series of rolling hills created by the bombs that attacked the area. I would love to return during the summer when they provide guided tours of some of the original trenches.

We crossed back into Belgium to track down a few additional Canadian monuments. In the tiny town of Passendale, we took Canadalaan to the small monument that commemorates Canada’s involvement in the battle to capture the Passchendaele ridge. We then headed to the solemn monument at St Juliaan that marks where Canadians withstood the first German gas attacks.

We finished our tour in Ypres, hoping to visit the In Flanders’ Field Museum, but got there too late. It was interesting to see the town, though, as it was completely annihilated during the war. It has since been rebuilt, and is a large, lively town. To show their appreciation to the people of the commonwealth for their sacrifice, the town flies several British flags and holds a short remembrance ceremony every day.

It was a memorable and patriotic day, ending a great trip to Belgium.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Belgium: the Land of Beer and Chocolate

After Gilles’ parents returned to Canada, we traveled to Belgium to ring in the New Year and enjoy plenty of chocolate, beer, and waffles. Belgium was not a country that we were previously interested in visiting, but due to its proximity to us and rave reviews from friends, we decided to give it a try. As usual, we were not disappointed by what we saw! We split our time between Brussels (the capital) and the quaint medieval town of Bruges.

The highlight for many tourists visiting Belgium is sampling the beer and chocolate, two culinary treasures that the Belge have been renowned for for centuries. There are over 400 different types of Belgian beers; remarkably each one has its own glass. The main classes of beer are: white/witbier, trappist, abbey, lambic (unique to Belgium), ales, and seasonal beers for Christmas-time. Most restaurants serve ten to twenty different beers, but we were in two whose menu listed over 400 varieties! Imagine not only stocking that many different beers, but subsequently having to stock that many different glasses! We managed to try 21 different beers, including one that smelled like a blueberry strawberry shortcake doll I had as a child, and one that smelled like cherry lifesavers. Some of the beers we tried were reminiscent of ones I have had from the Quebec brewery Unibroue. We liked all but one or two of the beers that we tried, not a bad record!

Mmmmm, chocolate! While in Belgium we felt like Homer Simpson in his ‘Land of Chocolate’ fantasy. I am sure we had chocolate three times daily, and if we were ever running out of supplies, there was guaranteed to be a chocolate shop only a few steps away. We learned about the history of chocolate in the chocolate museum in Bruges, then marched straight over to the nearest chocolate shop for more goodies. We sampled chocolate from about seven different shops; our favourites were Dumon, Neuhaus, and Pierre Marcolini. The Marcolini shop looked more like a fancy jewelry store than a chocolate shop. His chocolates were well worth the hefty price and the long line. We returned home with almost 1 Kg of pralines (filled chocolates, a Belgian invention), and are using them to stave off the resultant chocolate hangover. As a side note, in our well researched chocolate opinion, Bernard Callebaut, the Belgian chocolatier who has set up shop in Calgary, offers a product that rivals what we tasted in Belgium.

A couple of additional notes about Belgian cuisine: they consider fries an essential part of any meal, they have the best mussels we have ever eaten (combined with fries = moules frites), and the waffles are incredible!

We did much more in Belgium than eat and drink, but chocolate and beer is much easier to describe than what we saw. Bruges had a few seasonal sites set up that we took part in: an amazing ice sculpture display inside a cooled tent. It included an ice bar with shotglasses made of ice, and an ice slide that chilled our bums as we slid down. There was an outdoor skating rink in the main town square. Most people do not learn how to skate here, so we spent more time dodging adults and children on their backsides than we did actually skating, but it was fun nonetheless!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A French Christmas

After three wonderful days in Paris, Gilles, his parents, and I flew down to Pau. As soon as we landed we rushed to Les Halles, the morning market, to stock up on food for the coming days. Walking through a large French food market is a great cultural experience, and our guests were enthralled by the countless cheese vendors, butchers, olive stands, fishmongers, traiteurs, and many more. We picked up numerous cheeses, pâtés, foie gras, olives, fruit and vegetables, then rushed home for a French lunch in the sunny backyard.

That was not the end of our food errands. On Christmas Eve we picked up more supplies for the coming feasts. We visited our favourite poissonerie (fishmonger) for an essential component to any French Christmas: oysters. There are several varieties, each available in three or four sizes. The French buy them by the crate, but we opted for a much smaller quantity of 18 to enjoy before seafood chowder on Christmas Eve. Next, we visited our favourite chicken guy. He sets up a traveling rotisserie in the parking lot of a nearby bakery every Sunday, and we visit him almost weekly. His chickens are incredible (and I never thought I would say that about a chicken), so we chose to buy our chapon from him this year. Then, off to the bakery to pick up our pre-ordered bûche de noël and our daily bread. I am sure that Nancy and Bernard would say that running food errands was one of their favourite French activities!

Amongst all the shopping and subsequent eating, we did manage to fit in a few day trips. As with most of our guests, we ventured to two coastal villages: France's St Jean de Luz and Spain's San Sebastian. The latter includes the much loved activity of visiting tapas bars. We also visited Lourdes, Toulouse, and the medieval village of Carcassonne.

Their visit seemed to fly by, and before we knew it we were dropping them off at the airport. It was their first Christmas away from home, and while there were some unfamiliar aspects, they loved experiencing some new traditions. Thanks for a wonderful time!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Wonderful Paris

Happy New Year! We had a busy holiday season here in France. Now that real life has recommenced I will get caught up on some blogging.

Gilles’ parents joined us for Christmas this year. It was their first trip to Europe, so everything was new and exciting. We met them in Paris the morning they arrived, then spent three days touring that wonderful city before voyaging down to Pau.

I love Paris anytime of the year, but there is something special in the air in December. The ‘City of Lights’ is even more illuminated than usual, there are amazing window displays at the large department stores, and only the best food is on the menu. We earned our food indulgences by walking all day long. Paris is best seen on foot, and we did our best to keep moving, fitting in as many sights as possible in three days.

Gilles and I have explored Paris several times in the past year, and have gotten to know some excellent, affordable, and non-touristy restaurants. We love venturing into Paris’ neighbourhoods to find the best eats, and Gilles’ parents were more than willing to join us. We also fit in some of Paris’ best sweet treats: macarons, roasted chestnuts, and street crèpes, which Gilles refused to let us sit for, claiming all street food tastes better when standing. For those who are not familiar with macarons, they are a famous Parisian pastry consisting of two meringue cookies held together sandwich-like with a creamy filling. We waited in lengthy lines at two famous macarons shops: Ladurée and Pierre Hermé. Ladurée tends to stick with traditional flavours (ie raspberry, lemon, chocolate), while Pierre Hermé is much more adventurous. There we purchased macarons containing foie gras (surprisingly good), truffles (we were not fans), and fleur de sel (delicious combined with caramel).

We left Paris happy: with heads full of history facts and bellies full of goodies. Next, on to Pau for Christmas.