Thursday, February 18, 2010

European Vacation: Paris

Ah, Paris. What can I say about you that hasn't been said a thousand times before. Your beautiful lights, your deep and colorful history, your passionate people, and your food. Oh, your food.  There is no city in the world that celebrates food the way Paris does.  Our time in Paris was far too short, but we managed to see a lot of this beautiful city and eat some incredible food along the way.

We were lucky enough to see Paris blanketed in snow; a soft layer of white covering rooftops and sidewalks, typically busy cafe patios were empty but for the tables huddled under the heat lamps.  Everywhere we walked, the food of Paris lept out at us from manicured window displays and sidewalk produce stands.  The smell of freshly baked bread and pastries was everywhere, especially in the morning as busy Parisians picked up their morning baguette on the way to work.

Our first morning in Paris, we took a French pastry cooking class with Pino of Cook'n With Class near our little apartment in Montmarte.  We learned the art of making croissants, pain au chocolat, a raisin bread, and a fougasse.  And yes, we used a lot of butter.  The rest of the small class was made up of a family also from the Bay Area, so we immediately felt at ease with each other, something familiar so far from home.

The missus, enjoying a delicious ham sandwich:

A temple of fine food, Le Grand Epicerie has just about everything you could possibly imagine.

While our stay in Paris took us to many of the famous destinations of art and culture this city has to offer, no museum or palace would top the evening we spent with our friends Helene and Christophe, walking the city and finally ending our night with one of the most amazing meals I have ever had.

We sat down at Le Chardenoux around 11pm, after an aperitif and a few bites of freshly sliced prosciutto.  We decided on a spectacular bottle of Bordeaux, and waited for the cuisine of chef Cyril Lignac to arrive.  Not knowing who exactly this chef is or just how special a place we were sitting in, we had no idea how incredible this meal was going to be.  Fois gras ravioli, scallops with chorizo and a sweet potato puree, shepherd's pie with duck confit, the list goes on and on.  Each bite was absolute perfection; I actually started getting sad as the few remaining bites disappeared from my plate.

This was the experience in Paris I had been looking for.  You can have the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph; my Paris is sitting around a table, sharing wine with friends and savoring each bite of an amazing meal.  It was hard to let this evening end, but by the time we were done the restaurant was empty and waiting to close, the Paris streets outside were quiet and it was time to be getting home.

It might be a tacky tourist trap, but it had to be done.  This little cafe is where Amelie Poulin daydreamed and served coffee to her colorful cast of customers.  The owners of the cafe know a meal ticket when they see one, and spare no effort letting you know this is Amelie's cafe.  And no, it doesn't look anything like it does in the movie.

Marrons, or chestnuts, are roasted in braziers right on the street and stuffed into rolled up newspaper to eat as you go.  Just one of the many things we discovered here, something we just don't see much of here in California.

A quirky sausage stand in a Christmas market near the Eiffel Tower.

The world famous hot chocolate of Cafe Angelina:

While the hot chocolate was amazing, this busy cafe near the Louvre is snotty and knows they don't need your business.  This is the type of place most Americans think of when they talk about rude Parisians, a waiter who hardly acknowledges your existence and barely conceals his contempt for having to serve you.  Was the hot chocolate worth it?  Yeah, probably.

Food is art in Paris.  This is a pyramid of macarons in a little shop just up the street from our apartment in Montmarte, but it seemed as if every street we walked down had their own unique take on the presentation of their beautiful treats.

Our last day in Paris, with a long overnight train ride in our near future, we needed to pick up some provisions for the trip to Italy.  

At another little Christmas market nestled in a square across from the Seine we found this couple selling artisan cheese and salami, just the thing we needed for our train ride.  Lucky we did, too, we ended up eating most of it at the station while waiting 3 hours for our train.

One of the cherished delicacies of Paris are the macarons, little beautifully colored almond cookies in literally dozens of flavors.  It seems like everyone makes macarons, but some of the finest are found here at Gerard Mulot.  These little guys are almost as enjoyable to look at as they are to eat.  Almost.

How could I write anything about Paris an not mention crepes?  The iconic street food of Paris, little crepe stands can be found all over the city, especially during the winter.  We tried them with jam, with creme de marron, and of course Nutella, our favorite.  A perfect snack to keep your energy up while spending the day walking around town.

Our time in Paris was so amazing, I don't feel writing about it has done it justice.  There are not enough words to thank our friends Helene and Christophe for sharing their city with us, and Aia for her opening up her home and taking us to her favorite haunts.  The experience of Paris was made so much richer by having friends to show us the city they love.  Thank you all so much, we cannot wait for our chance to return.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

European Vacation: Bruges

Our next stop was the beautiful medieval town of Bruges in Belgium, a favorite holiday retreat for many Europeans who come for the Christmas markets and, of course, the chocolate. The only reason we knew about this delightful little town was because of the film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Bredan Gleeson. Even though it is a film about hitmen, it is a glowing advertisement for the city with its beautiful canals and cobblestone streets.

All film references aside, the city of Bruges is a truly magical place, and during the holidays her squares are filled with Christmas markets, selling everything from mulled wine to cozy knit hats. The main square of the city, the Market Square, even has a large ice skating rink set up for all the tourists to test their wobbly legs or watch their friends run into each other while sipping a hot chocolate on the walkway.

The two biggest foodie attractions in Bruges are, no surprise, beer and chocolate. And Bruges does not disappoint with every window advertising delicious Belgian beer and a chocolate shop on very nearly every street. The one remaining brewery within city limits, De Halve Maan brewery, gives walking tours (in various languages) through the brewery's old buildings and brewing facilities, culminating with a tasting of their most popular beer, Brugse Zot.

Keeping warm with a little Jagermeister:

The De Halve Maan Brewery, the only brewery left in Bruges:

Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate:

We couldn't decide if these little guys were here to be someone's pet, or someone's dinner.

The Christmas Market of Market Square:

The best way to end our stay in Bruges:

Bruges was a fantastic place to slow down and enjoy a beautiful, historic city packed with beer, chocolate, and Christmas everywhere.  But we hadn't even hit our stride, up next was Paris.