31 December 2009

A return to Belgium pt 2: Beer

Though we'd vaguely discussed it before heading for Spain, we hadn't really planned to go to Belgium this past week. And so when Christmas Day rolled around, we had no hotels, no car rented, no logistical leg work completed to get us there.

And though through the wonder of the internet we'd managed to take care of most of the details by the night of the 26th, we were still without a hotel for the next night near or in Brussels. Diegem, the location of the day's (late) races, is very near the Brussels airport, which is on the side of town we'd need to drive through to get to Anwerpen the next day. So it was a no-brainer to stay in an airport hotel for the few hours we'd actually be there.

But I'd just read here about a good new beer bar downtown that we'd somehow missed in our visit earlier in the month, and in order to pay a real visit, we'd have to stay downtown. So it came down to convenience and common sense vs. beer. Common sense never had a chance. I just hoped that the bar was worth the trouble.

30 December 2009

A return to Belgium: Cyclocross

We were (barely) back in Paris from Barcelona for Christmas before heading north again for Belgium. The week between Christmas and New Year's is packed with Belgian cyclocross races, starting with the World Cup in Zolder on the 26th, then races on the 27th, 29th, and 30th of December and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of January.

Since we'd already been up to see a GVA Trofee race (Koppenberg) and a Superprestige race (Gavere), Karen was eager to see a World Cup race, but we wanted to watch mid-atlantic super-junior Jeff Bahson-- who is attending the US cyclocross camp in Izegem this year en route to riding the World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic-- race in the deep fields in Belgium, and the juniors went off earlier than we'd be able to pick up a car and drive there. So instead, we drove up Sunday to watch the Superprestige Diegem, used the no-racing day on Monday to do some site-seeing in Antwerpen, and caught the GVA Trofee Azencross race on Tuesday before driving back to Paris.

Since bike racing and beer are both important, there'll be a separate post on the non-cyclocross portion of the trip.

Like all of our experiences in Europe, the 4 cyclocross races we attended in Belgium this year weren't quite like we had envisioned. Here's a list of things we expected at a Belgian CX race and actually found:

19 December 2009

Bon voyage

Life 3000 miles from home has its ups and downs, and the last couple of weeks have been a bit trying. Whatever Paris mojo I'd had earlier this autumn seems to have disappeared, either because I'm just off my French game or because the lingering glow of post-vacances tolerance has finally been extinguished from the natives. Suddenly my French isn't good enough for anybody, anymore, and more frustratingly I'm doing stupid things like fusing together pots and bowls used as double-boilers (admittedly a foreseeable, apparently inevitable, occurrence, in my weekly yogurt making; I've applied heat to the pot while applying ice to the bowl to break the vapor lock, but there's so much shared wall length and relatively little wall thickness that the two vessels won't act independently. It's out on the balcony now for one last-ditch effort at separation, and barring that, it'll at least make an impressive impression in the hood of the next Frog to lay on the horn. Still, a crying shame, as I love my bowl and I'll have to spend money to replace Madame's pot...) and shrinking my favorite sweaters. So it goes.

The ice-bound, vapor-locked pot-and-bowl double boiler that's soon destined for the garbage bin.

So when I had one of those baffling Paris exchanges at the market this week, it came as no surprise. I wanted duck breast, a pretty straightforward choice, given that I always buy from the same vendor, mostly because his magrets are better cleaned and plucked than many. But when I asked for one, he said he didn't have any more, despite the fact that we were both looking at several there in his case. Was this another "crepine" incident, or did he just not feel like selling me anything this week? Turns out that I'd asked for magret de canard, and he only had filet de canard. They're both duck breast, so what's the difference? The magret de canard is the breast from a fatted (ie, for foie gras) duck, whereas the filet de canard is the breast from a non-fatted duck. Learn something new every week.

Anyway, it's been birthday season here in the 16e, and usually we go out for a somewhat extravagant meal to celebrate them. But after all of the excesses of the last month, and with traveling yet to come, we decided to stay low key this year. But that doesn't mean there there can't be some playing with food. I particularly like getting to work with the same ingredients a few days in a row, to learn from mistakes, or at least try variations on a theme. Here's the highlights.

18 December 2009

Beer Run: Brussels

There are a lot of things one associates with Paris, but beer is probably not among them for most people. And for good reason. Despite the fact that there are a lot (hundreds) of breweries in France making interesting, even good, unfiltered unpasteurized beers in small batches, finding said beers in Paris is nearly impossible.

Or rather, finding them in a bar in Paris is nearly impossible. One can always find them at La Cave a Bulles, a beer specialty store in the shadow of the (still-crippled-by-strike) Centre Pompidou. The proprietor there, who shares both an amicable and enthusiastic personality and a fondness for tie-died t-shirts with the owner of one of my favorite beer-related places in Philly, will be happy to dispel the notion that Kronenbourg 1664 and Fischer, or the handful of barely interesting Belgian imports that are on tap everywhere in Paris, define French beer. Even so, in the 8 months we'd been in Paris, we'd developed a bit of a beer craving.

And when you live in Paris and have a real beer craving, your best bet is to head for the border. If, like one of the members of my family, you think anything that isn't a generic by-the-book lager "tastes like mud," you'd best head east for Germany. If you like variety in your beer, however, or even just like mud, Belgium's a good bit more fun.

We spent 5 days in Belgium in Nov indulging our interests in beer and mud, combining vacation, cyclocross Superprestige spectating, and (for Karen) work.

First things first: After getting off the train, we dropped our bags at the hotel and made a bee-line for Le Pré Salé, where Karen had the most amazing mussels of her life. They were so good, I rolled the dice and had not 1 but 2. Even if I'd wound up in the ER, it would have been worth it. The Duvel was a nice first beer, too.

17 December 2009

L'hiver est arrivé

Though it's officially still 4 days away yet, the temperatures here have definitely been winter-like. Then today, 2 things happened that cemented winter's unofficial official arrival.

1. It snowed. Snowfall in Paris, according to the locals, isn't a miracle event. But it also isn't an everyday winter occurrence. It started early this morning, before the nominal sunrise, and continued for much of the morning and early afternoon before kind of petering out. Since I'm not sure we'll get to see it again, I went out and took pictures, like a dork. It was fun.

Off the balcony.

One of the few times today La Tour was visible at all.

Square Lamartine

13 December 2009

The Paris Groove

With all of the turmoil at work, I was only assured we could stay here until the end of August. That date came and went... work kept going, and there was no reason to go home. So we stayed.

The merger of companies occured, and I still have a job. The fate of the Paris office is still not clear, but it looks like we'll be here into the New Year at the very least, and possibly through all of next year. We had come with the mind-set of the 6 month assignment, and have been shifting focus back to the original target of 2 years, since it may happen yet.

So, we have been trying to get deeper into Paris and the Paris lifestyle while we are here. After success with the boots, I am rediscovering my inner clothes horse, and have been gradually acquiring proper French clothes. Last weekend I had success at a cool little boutique in the 10th- a dress, a skirt, and a top.

We've been marveling at the Christmas spectacle in Paris. The decorations definitely have a different esthetic. They really like white lights, and especially lights that look like dripping water. We have wandered up and down the Champs Elysees twice (once from the Arc de Triomphe end, the other time from Concorde) where there is a huge Christmas festival. Apparently Christmas in Europe involves a lot of little "chalets" in which vendors can peddle their wares. We had seen them in Brussles, but they are everywhere in Paris, in little clumps. You know you are in Europe when the snacks for sale include fois gras or duck breast sandwiches.

05 December 2009

A Thanksgiving in Paris

Thanks to a visit from some friends from home, Thanksgiving weekend was a blur.

It started with a 10-h Thanksgiving feast as soon as our guests arrived on Thursday. How they managed to stay awake (or even alive) is beyond me. Talk about good sports.

Friday, after about 12 hours of food coma, we attended the fall edition of the Salon des Vins (this edition's motto: Now without food poisoning!), a convention of about 1000 independent French wine makers south of town. Preston decided he wanted to bring back cognac, which gave us a much-needed focus in the sea of tasting opportunity. Because sampling the offerings from all 13 cognac producers at the Salon would have buried us, we limited ourselves to just one subregion. Even from the restricted selection, the favorite was awfully good. And though one's tasting perceptions have to be viewed with some suspicion after 20 cognacs, the fun of working through them all does not. There was a boat show in the adjoining building, and I have to wonder how many wine-fueled yacht purchases were made over the 5-day Salon des Vins weekend.

We followed the wine convention up with a pleasant dinner at Hier et Aujourd'hui, a nice little place a little out of the way in the 17e. It's the kind of place that still does the help-yourself (and delicious) terrine and cornichons before the meal, and the 1-man kitchen turns out updated versions of classic French food. Good food, good value, and always a good time.

Having guests who wanted to see the non-touristy side of Paris was the perfect opportunity to so some things we'd been too lazy to get to. So we spent a soggy Saturday walking from the Bois de Vincennes to Bastille along the Promenade Plantée, a converted railway line that is now a greenway that offers diverse botanical and architectural views. From there we walked through the Marais, the warren of non-Haussmann small and twisty streets lined with hip shops, and then for contrast the Champs Elysees, all lit up for Christmas and hosting a Christmas market, complete with rides for kids, ice sculptures (10 eurobucks, please), a Ferris wheel, cheesy little wooden chalets selling just about any kitschy thing you can think of, and even a Santa sleigh on a zip line. It's not often in high-style Paris you get to see people in cow hats selling coo-coo clocks. We had dinner at my favorite restaurant in Paris, La Gazzetta in the 12e. The cooking there is both full of flavor and very delicate, a difficult combination to pull off, and the service is always exceptional.

After a delicious lunch of Portuguese roast chicken in the 9e on Sunday, we visited the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19e (another Haussmann project) and made our way back along the Canal St Martin, stopping for hot chocolate and christmas beer in one of the many cozy neighborhood bars.

Reasons to live in Paris, entry 1

For my impending senility, or maybe just to look at on those occasional trying days here, I've decided to keep track of the reasons one should live in Paris. No ranking or top 10 list or anything-- just good stuff about being here, as it happens.

But if I were keeping a prioritized list, smart money would have a hot chocolate break on a rainy day at Jacques Genin's boutique/tea room near Republique pretty darn close to the top.

Paris has quite a number of good spots to get hot chocolate, and we've been partaking frequently, lately. Angelina's (wonderfully rich but a bit sweet for my tastes) and Charles Chocolatier (dark and intense, no dairy used so just a little gritty, which I quite liked) were both good starts. Unfortunately, perhaps the first entry onto the "reasons not to live in Paris" list, well, after the obvious entry of bilious coffee, is that there is also plenty of lousy hot chocolate in Paris, and while we were out wandering with guests last weekend, we had two examples of that.

But today, knowing we were going to be in that part of town, we made a point of finding Genin's shop, not certain it was open and less certain yet there was really hot chocolate to be had. The shop is luxuriously sparse, and any other place in Paris would squeeze at least 3 times as many tables into the tea room. As such, we had to wait nearly 30 min for a table, because to our modest annoyance, they don't offer the hot chocolate to go. But the charmingly gracious and graceful hostess brought us each one of Genin's fabulous caramels while we waited, which aside from nearly prompting a marriage proposal from me (my second of the day, because the waitress at Breizh Cafe, surely on another day its own entry onto the Reasons to Live in Paris list, brought us (me) not 2 but 4 caramels after I waxed poetic about their caramel beurre salé that came on my dessert crêpe), made me hope it might be another 30 or 60 min of waiting. And the experience once seated was worth at least twice that wait and made the thought of take-out seem downright silly. In addition to hot chocolate, which comes with a sugar bowl covered with an assortment of flawless chocolate-covered bitter orange rind or ginger (how is that that other tables were leaving these amazing treats on the table?), there's a menu of pastries, including popular made-to-order mille feuilles, and a tasting of chocolates.

We had 2 magnificent hot chocolates, rich, dense, smooth, and perfectly (ie, only modestly) sweetened. Oh. My. And Karen had a chocolate eclair, decent enough pastry filled with a heart-stoppingly good chocolate cream, and I did the chocolate tasting, 7 little chocolates filled with chocolate, spice, honey, herb, or nut, all of them superb. The only problem with the chocolates was that getting every nuance of taste while drinking the hot chocolate was a bit like doing a wine tasting while drinking a bottle of a big California cabernet. Next time (and there will absolutely be a next time) I'll do a pastry sûr place and save the chocolates for bringing home.

Chocolicious: the wonder that is chocolat chaud at Genin.

03 December 2009

Don't blink

Paris the last month or more has been mostly cool dreary damp days, where the low clouds part and reform to give off-and-on rain. But if the clouds part at just the right time, the result can still be pretty spectacular. The show above lasted just a brief moment before dissolving.