A Weekend in Venice

This year’s winter escape was to Venice… where the cold was even more intense than Paris, but the sun shone all weekend, drowning the city in strong, diffuse light.

It was my first visit to city. One of the most striking qualities of the city is indeed its light… where the sky and lagoon meld into one, as if the city is riding on clouds, rather than sitting on the ocean.  In the view across the lagoon from the boatyard at Giudecca, the poles marking the shipping lanes slip quietly into the invisible horizon.

After the sun sank beneath the lagoon, we walked back across Venice, which had assumed the guise of some Expressionist horror film.  Emptied of tourists, small hidden squares awaited macabre intrigue involving Shylock or Donald Sutherland, and the dock of La Fenice theatre stood ready to receive phantom guests from the other side.

Somebody once wrote that Venice was the most beautiful city built by man.  Everybody should visit once, if they have the chance… by travelling in January, we missed the oppressive crowds of Carnavale and Summer, but there were still plenty of visitors, willing to part with their euros for a trip through the morning mist of the Grand Canal.

Wishing to save our money for food (and Venice provided some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted), we contented ourselves with a short crossing by traghetto... the bare-bones gondolas that ferry passengers across the Grand Canal, charging just 50 cents a trip.

I cannot imagine that I will not be back.  For this first reconnaissance mission, we stuck to exploring the city, and travelling by vaporetto between the city’s islands. This was feast enough for us.  Next time, we might start digging into the art museums, or the churches, or the markets.

In Venice the light reached everywhere. It stabbed the heart of Palladio’s church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and glowed deep and green at night on the basin opposite St Mark’s Square.  When Thomas Mann’s composer Gustave von Aschenbach went searching for ideal beauty, it is no wonder that he found it in Venice.

Yes, we will be back.

The First Café Gourmand in Belgium

One of the mainstays of any restaurant menu in Paris these days is le café gourmand, a sort of feel-good dessert replacement (basically an espresso accompanied by 4-5 little samples of cakes and desserts), which normally sells for between 6 to 8 Euros.

As Olivier explains on his excellent blog, there are all sorts of obscure Parisian rules regulating when you’re allowed to order a café gourmand. But basically it’s what you order when you want dessert but don’t want to be seen by your dining companions having a dessert. It’s still just as fattening, but strangely un café gourmand is thought of as coffee, not dessert, so this makes it socially acceptable to diet-conscious Parisians.

You can now find the café gourmand in many places in France, but this particular symbol of Parisian civilisation doesn’t seem to have spread to Belgium yet. But this may be about to change…

We were in Brussels today for a business meeting, and we went out for a rather nice lunch at Le Quai (a restaurant in a converted railway station in the southern suburbs).  When it came to time to order dessert, one of our companions absently asked for “Un café gourmand, s’il vous plaît“.  The waitress stared back and asked quizzicly “C’est quoi un café gourmand?

Having explained to the waitress what was involved, the chef agreed to make us all café gourmands. I had to immortalise the moment – just in case this turns out to be the moment that the café gourmand crosses the border into Belgium. Here’s the photo:

So if you’re in Brussels later this year, and see café gourmand on the menu… well, I’d like to think that me and my colleagues can take some of the credit.

Brussels, Breugel, Batucada

I was busy as a bee in Brussels over the weekend. It was basically my Belgian baptism: beer, bandes dessinées and bilingualism. It was, to be blunt, bloody brilliant.


Saturday morning sun among the guildhalls in the Grote Market


Hanging out at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée


…and finding parallels between Hergé and Breugel at the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts


When in Rome…


Saturday night with the guys from Batucada Sound Machine


Sunday morning confronting the colonial past at the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale


…before a Sunday afternoon lost among the glass towers of EU officialdom…


…all achieved in less than 48 hours!

The Marché des Arceaux in 60 Seconds

This weekend was spent back in Montpellier, catching up with friends. On Saturday morning I visited the Marché des Arceaux with Ed Ward (read his Montpellier blog here).

With up to 80 local farmers and producers turning up each week, this is Montpellier’s premier source of fresh food in Montpellier – always worth a stop if you’re in town on a Saturday or a Tuesday!

Eating Up

Parisians seem to studiously ignore the Eiffel Tower. When it’s mentioned in conversation, it’s described rather disdainfully as “Un truc pour les touristes“. The most famous monument in the world is generally not worth the attention of local residents.

Although I’ve been to the base of the tower several times with visitors, I’ve never felt the urge to climb it. I prefer to avoid crowds where possible. At the Tower the tens of thousands of tourists, hawkers and armed paratroopers do not make for a pleasant atmosphere.

However, last night I swallowed my pride and we reserved a table in the restaurant on the first level of the tower.  It was (surprisingly) good fun. You pay a premium for eating there (65EUR set menu), and you must reserve in advance.  But the food is GOOD, with a decided slant towards seafood: I chose smoked salmon as an entrée and scallops as a main course.

I should point out that we ate at the “cheap” restaurant. If you want to eat higher up the tower, in the Restaurant Jules Verne, be prepared to fork out 200EUR for the set menu.

Climbing the tower gives you the chance to look down upon the crowds queueing to do exactly the same thing as you. I took the photo above at 9pm, with people casting long silhouettes in the setting sun.

A visit to the Tower helps you appreciate the amazing technical feat of building such a structure out of iron in 1889.  It may be a tourist trap, but quite frankly it deserves to be famous. For 40 years it was the tallest building in the world (1889-1930). Today it is still the second-tallest structure in France after the equally impressive Viaduc de Millau.

But perhaps the best reason to go up the tower is precisely to see “Paris without the Tower”. Without the Tower, Paris spreads out in all directions, with small punctuation marks (the Left Bank domes of Les Invalides, the Institut de France and the Pantheon) piercing its uniform 7-storey roofline. The white and cream stone rolls all the way out to the suburbs beyond the périph where apartment blocks mark a barrier between the city and the rest of the country – a barrier that is just as effective as the old city walls.

From the Tower, you can sweep the northern horizon to see symbols of Paris past and future. On the Butte de Montmartre stands Sacré-Coeur, the bad-taste memorial to Paris’s own little civil war of 1871 which killed 20-30,000 citizens. And further to the west stands the business district of La Défense, a vast money refinery on the horizon that pumps a GDP the size of Greece back into the capital each year, funding its faded glory.

Polidor

I don’t write much about food here, which seems strange since I live in a city famous for restaurants. However, this week has involved visits to a couple of notable Parisian eateries. So I thought I’d recount our experiences.

Image: Stephen Rees (Creative Commons)

Saturday night I suggested the Polidor, of which I had heard good things. It’s just down the road from me, behind the Odéon. It’s one of the oldest traditional bistrots in Paris, and regular customers included James Joyce, Boris Vian, Rimbaud and Verlaine. Despite its illustrious connections, it is not overrun with tourists and hence offers a menu at suitably reasonable prices.

Having not booked, we thought we’d arrive at the stereotypically Anglo-Saxon hour of 7.30pm – the theory being that we would not have to compete with locals for a seats.  As it was, the place was almost full already, and we got places on a long table in the front room, next to a talkative French couple.  Everyone at the Polidor shares tables, and this is part of the fun.

The place makes the most of its humble bistrot beginnings, and is everything a Paris bistrot should be – mirrored walls, wood panelling and red-and-white checked tablecloths.  It’s noisy and the service is unfussy and rapid: it’s worth remembering that the bistrot was 19th century Paris’ equivalent of McDonalds.

Image: Ed Swierk (Creative Commons)

We all chose the menu fixe at 25EUR. For entrée I had a rather stunning blonde lentil and foie gras soup, which came served in a brown stoneware bowl. In case you’ve never thought of putting foie gras in soup before – trust me, it works, and it’s delicious.

The main course was a rich and satisfying boeuf bourgignon – with chunky carrots. If some of the meat was a tad dry in the middle, the situation was rapidly resolved with application of the oodles of sauce that accompanied it.

For some reason I chose a bottle of Madiran to accompany the meal. It may be the wine with the highest level of antioxidants in the world (one glass makes you cancer-proof for a week), but it was a little heavy-going as a food wine. My theory was that its southwestern origins might have complemented the foie gras soup. However I should have stuck with my first intinct and chosen a Burgundy: more subtle as an accompaniment to the boeuf bourguignon.

Dessert was also simple, understated and divine – a rasberry bavarois in a red berry coulis. Enough said.

Overall: eat fast, eat well. Polidor was excellent value with very good food, good service and an “authentic” bustling atmosphere. For 30EUR a head including wine, you can do a lot worse in Paris.

Polidor
41 Rue Monsieur le Prince
75006 Paris
Menu 25EUR (or à la carte)

Open 7 days

Note – Polidor does not accept credit cards, a policy it has proudly maintained since it opened its doors in 1845.

Rain in St Germain

Today was a domestic day. There’s a list as long as my arm of things that need to be done now that I’ve moved into my apartment, so I was up fairly early and headed out in the drizzle to start checking things off.

First priority was bread for the day – the closest boulangerie to me is an outlet of Maison Kayser – a little expensive at €1.20 for a baguette tolbiac, but it’s good quality. I’ve seen cheaper boulangeries down among the shops around rue de Seine and rue de Buci , and one of these might become my local. But Maison Kayser is very convenient.

Down on Boulevard St Germain, the scooters were zipping along the slick street, showering pedestrians with spray. Even by 10am on a grey Saturday, the covered terrace of Les Deux Magots was filled with tourists. Monoprix on rue de Rennes had the electrical goods I was looking for – a kettle and lightbulbs.

I got back to the apartment to find my Pass Navigo had arrived by post. At last I can by a monthly pass and not bother with individual metro tickets. A small victory on the way to becoming integrated into life in Paris.

A Twitter exchange during the week had suggested the place to shop for new business shirts was rue de Turenne. So once more I ventured out into the rain, grabbed a metro north across the river. At Chatelet there was a poster advertising Iceland – a reminder of the dream I had last night when I visited Sigurdór there and we swapped music and tried to steal a fishing boat.

Sure enough, between the puddles on rue de Turenne, there were at least a dozen tailors and menswear shops – importers, prêt-à-porter, tailors. Beh,à peu près tout, quoi. And a few were even open. After talking to the manager (who looked Italian, like all managers of menswear stores throughout the world) in Cotton Park on rue des Filles du Calvaire, I picked up 3 shirts. The guy asked if I was from London. When he learned I was a New Zealand, he replied “Ah, oui. Long trip.” in English. He gave me a loyalty card in the hope that I might buy ten shirts this year. Long trip indeed.

The plan to jump straight back on the metro got a little waylaid – I ended up under the arcades at Place des Vosges (a great place-to-go-in-Paris-when-it’s-raining), and slipped through the puddles in the garden of the Hôtel de Sully to rue St Antoine. Realising I was halfway home already, I risked the grey skies by wandering westwards through le Marais – stopping to pick up some veg and sausage to fill my Kayser baguette at the Marché Baudoyer by St Gervais.

Along the quais beside the Seine, only a few brave bouquinistes were open for the tourist trade. The rain continued. Viewed from the Pont Neuf, the the city still managed to show off its autumn colours despite the general dampness. Crossing back onto the left bank with my bag of shirts, sausage and vegetables, I was soon home in time to assemble my sandwich for lunch.

Tasting Notes

A few cat-sitting gigs here in Montpellier have not filled the wallet, but they have filled the apartment with cat hair, and the whisky cabinet with new bottles, allowing some interesting comparative tastings.  I’m no expert on single malts (as compared to, say Dubber and Clutch), but increasingly I know what I like.

To me, (and I’m going to sound like a complete tosser when I write this), whisky doesn’t taste of things like wine does. Rather, whisky tastes of ideas and images. Short scenarios that shoot out of the glass at you.

I’ve been progressively tweeting descriptions as I open each bottle. Here are those tweet-sized chunks, assembled in one place:

Cragganmore: felt-tipped tulip petals, newly unfurled bracken fronds, and the kitchen door of a Birmingham curry house.

Talisker 10 yr old: charcoal oxygen filters, aluminium window-frames and dodgy 1940s fuseboxes. Like drinking C-3PO. Délicieux.

Oban 14 yr: this is definitely what Maurice Sendak used to clean his paintbrushes while illustrating “Where the Wild Things Are

Dalwhinnie 10: Wednesdays at boarding school. Freshly laundered woollen socks, a locker room full of rugby balls and matron’s stern gaze.

Lagavulin 16 year old: Wow. Salty. Driftwood and neptunes necklace. Spicy treacle and seagull feathers. Mooring ropes at half-tide in a November sea-fog.

Aberlour 10 year old: you remember that class trip to the colonial museum with the old sweet shop, the stuffed elephant and Melissa wetting her pants?

Glenkinchie 12 year old: weekends on your uncle’s farm, amidst Victorian furnishings, mouldy tourist calendars from 1954

Bowmore Islay 12 year old: fossilised kauri gum, barnacles left too long on the mantlepiece and the bilge water from an Arthur Ransome novel.

Frogs’ Legs

Last night at dinner in Mauguio, the aperitif included ravioli réunionnaises, and frogs’ legs:

Although anglo-saxon stereotypes would hold that French people eat cuisses de grenouille (and equally slimy escargots) all the time, this simply isn’t true. A particular speciality of the lyonnais, frogs legs aren’t something that appears on the table very often. However it was inevitable that they would cross my plate at some point while I am living in France.

The verdict – sautéed in oil with herbs and vegetables and possibly some gros sel, frogs legs taste of very little at all. The texture of the flesh is very similar to scallops, and they’re full of little thighbones.  They aren’t unpleasant, but I’m not going to rush out and buy some myself to cook for lunch…

Etnobofin’s Oxford Pub Guide

Alongside Radio 4 and Simon Amstell, a weekend afternoon ale (or cider) with mates at a pub is one of the great delights of living in this country. Pubs form such an important part of British life and you can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid them.

Somebody told me that Oxford boasts something like 100 pubs inside the ring road.  It’s amazing how many of them you can manage to visit over a couple of years without really trying.  So the pubs listed below are just the ones I like, or they’re at least notorious enough to merit their own wikipedia entries…

The Eagle and Child : (aka “The Bird and Baby” or “The Fowl and Foetus”) on St Giles. This is where C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkein used to hang out. Not my favourite, but the snugs by the front door are the perfect venue for a friendly argument on a winter evening.

The Bear: Serving beer to thirsty students since 1242, the Bear is notable mostly for its age (old even by Oxford standards), a framed collection of 5000 ties and its inconceivably small size.

The Hollybush Inn: situated on Osney Island, this unpretentious local pub is where Radiohead (and the Original Rabbit Foot Spasm Band) played their first gig.

The Head of the River: at Folly Bridge, by the Isis in the centre of town. Chow down on a good solid pub lunch while watching tourists fall out of their punts.

The Hobgoblin: one of the only pubs I can remember on Cowley Road (after an evening on Cowley Road many people don’t remember much). Sponsored by Oxfordshire’s Wychwood Brewery, it’s one of the few places in the city you can rely on getting a pint of Hobgoblin. Yum.

The Jolly Boatman: another waterside pub on the Oxford Canal near Kidlington. Good but not outstanding food and a reasonable beer selection. The real attraction of this pub is that it’s an easy 7 mile cycle trip up the canal path from the city – the perfect activity on a cool summer’s day.

The Trout Inn: a nice 30min walk up the Isis to Godstow brings you to rightly famous Trout Inn (mentioned in Brideshead Revisited). Popular, and hard to get a table. In summer, the Aspalls Organic Suffolk Cyder is highly recommended. In winter, try their venison hotpot.

The White Hart: A good alternative to the Trout, in the nearby village of Wytham. Fantastic menu. In summer, you can play the traditional Oxfordshire pub game “Aunt Sally

Jude the Obscure: A late contender for best pub in Jericho, without the chi-chi atmosphere of some of the other Jericho bars. Revolving selection of ales.

The Turf Tavern: Nestled down an alley between Hertford College and New College, the Turf is impossible to find for Oxford n00bs, but worth the effort. It’s good fun elbowing your way past the crowds of undergrads to access the bar and its exceptional rotating menu of real ales.

The Lamb and Flag: owned by St John’s College, but don’t let that stop you. It’s cosy and unpretentious, and empty out of term. Try the Lamb and Flag special ale if it’s in season.

The Kings Arms: at the far end of the Broad, this pub is all-student, all the time, and most of the leading politicians, lawyers, writers and scientists of the realm have propped up its bar at some point.  It’s old, uncomplicated and most of the really serious work of the university takes place here.

The Wheatsheaf: Wheatsheaf Passage, just off the High near Carfax. Lots of bands, good jazz nights on Thursdays with rotating UK/international artists. Go for the music, not the beer.

The Jericho Tavern: Walton Street, Jericho. Local bands play here, and it’s where Radiohead and Supergrass first gained a following in the early 90’s. Ridiculously popular on Friday nights. Unless you’re a Jericho resident, you’re likely to only ever come here if you want to hear the music.

Which are the best of these? Well, if you had just one day in Oxford, I’d definitely take you to the Turf. Unless you were a favourite aunt or a parent, in which case I’d reserve a table at The Trout or the White Hart for dinner.  For a quiet everyday pint away from the tourists and students, Jude the Obscure ticks most boxes in terms of atmosphere and drinks selection.

Remind me again, why the heck am I leaving Oxford?

*This blog supports responsible drinking. Respect alcohol, respect yourself. Enjoy local pubs in moderation.