Category Archives: food/drink

a rambling tale of strasbourg and a bear named Otto

20130211-122228.jpg

20130211-122242.jpg

20130211-122319.jpg

20130211-122334.jpg

20130211-122405.jpg

20130211-122421.jpg

Christmas Markets + hot wine; promise me those two things in one location and I’m there.  In this case, that location was Strasbourg in mid-December.

20130211-122435.jpg

Right before Christmas, we jumped on the fast train and rocketed down to soak up the local color and drink our fair share of vin chaud in Strasbourg.  With a name like Strasbourg, doesn’t it seem like the city should be located in Germany, rather than France?  I think so, but although I was born with a directional and geographical disability, I found out that I have the ability to become more adept at geography when it benefits me.

When I think of the term “Christmas Market” the image of little old ladies knitting mittens is the first thing that pops into my head.  The second thing that pops into my head is realization that those hand knitted mittens, although often cute, never, EVER, keep your hands warm.

Getting off the train in Strasbourg, I was surprised not to be assaulted by mittens, but rather I was greeted by every type of Christmas trinket available.  Sadly, nearly none of it was handmade and virtually nothing was even made in France.  From the original product perspective, I would say the markets were a bit of a bust, unless your sole purpose was to expand your collection of mini figurines to surround your model train setup.  But once I determined that there were few goods I really wanted to buy, I changed my focus to determine which market stall had the best vin chaud (hot wine).  Hot wine tastes much better than it sounds, since it has spices in it to make it taste delicious.  Since each stand seemed to have their own recipe, I had to try them all.  In the end, there was no clear winner – it was all good.

20130211-122348.jpg

While we were there, we also found out that the Tomi Ungerer museum was located in the city.  What?  You don’t know who Tomi Ungerer is?  Have you ever read The Three Robbers?  It’s one of few children’s books which includes a blunderbuss, a pepper-blower and a huge red axe.  It is also a book that will most assuredly scare the shit out of your small children (especially if read in a deep voice in a dark room).

This is a magazine with an article about Tomi Ungerer that I bought while in Strasbourg (notice on the cover under Ungerer’s name his quote is “it is necessary to traumatize children” – maybe I like him so much because we share the same parenting philosophy):

20130211-122158.jpg

Tomi Ungerer has been one of my favorite authors and illustrators for nearly my entire life, starting with the original version of “Flat Stanley” (written by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer).  Seriously, who doesn’t dream of becoming flat and getting mailed to California?  I still dream of doing that.  Or maybe I will mail myself back to France once I finally leave…..

This year in school, Owen’s class read Ungerer’s classic “Otto” which is about a stuffed bear that was owned by a Jewish boy during WWII.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that it is not an easy read.  Don’t let the fact that the main character is a stuffed bear fool you; Ungerer is nothing if not a realist.

20130211-122215.jpg

In any case, once we found out that the Tomi Ungerer Museum was located close to our hotel, it was on the top of our (read: my) list of things to do.  I was so excited to go to this museum that we ended up arriving a bit early for the daily opening and I found myself nearly climbing up the giant metal gates and screaming like a groupie.  Once inside, we found a treasure trove of antique toys (Ungerer’s personal collection), as well the original illustrations to most of his books.

As we entered the top floor of the museum, Owen spotted the original stuffed Otto across the room and he ran toward him.  In French museums, it is extremely normal to ignore all rules.  In our two years here, I have witnessed untold numbers of people taking pictures of things in museums, even when they are literally surrounded by giant signs forbidding photography.  When Owen asked if I would take a picture of him with Otto, I did a cursory glance around the room to see if there were any signs forbidding photos and not seeing any, I took out my camera and snapped a picture.  As soon as the security guard, who was chatting around the corner, heard the shutter click, she rounded the corner and gave me a severe reprimand for taking a photo where they were not allowed.

In the past I would have been horrified for getting busted, but I’ve perfected my “c’est comme ça” look and I flashed her a shrug.  Even Owen wasn’t phased by her.  He tends to be the (only) rule follower in our family, however he whispered to me as we walked out of the museum, “I don’t care that we got busted.  At least we got a picture of the REAL Otto.”

20130211-122303.jpg

In celebration of our illegal Otto picture, I suggested we go drink some vin chaud (with chocolat chaud for the kids).

life plans

20130120-230028.jpg

20130120-230059.jpg

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in France for almost two years and unfortunately, our time is approaching its end.  We were originally scheduled to be back in the US in February, but luckily for us, Tim was granted an extension until the summer so that the kids could finish the year of school and I could have more time to figure out what I’m going to do when I get back.  I’ve been thinking of my best options, so I just thought I’d share a few with you and get your input:

IDEA #1:  American Girl Doll Exporter

I’m not a girly girl and although I had my fair share of Barbies back in the day, I was a bit more interested Barbie’s VW van than her high heels.  Some things never change.  And no matter how many times I read, William’s Doll to my boys and told them I would buy them a doll if they wanted, the only doll that ever gained any traction with them was an antique Cabbage Patch Kid named Xavier that once belonged to my brother.  My kids are the apples that have not fallen far from the tree of me.

Just before Christmas, I was walking outside of school when I happened to overhear a mother say something about needing to find an American to help with a Christmas present.  I didn’t know this mother very well, but since I am both nosy and an American, I decided to butt in and offer my services, although I had absolutely no idea what she needed.  As it turns out, American Girl Dolls are not just popular in America – they are also popular in France and as I learned that day, impossible to buy here.  According to this mother, they are only available in the US; no international shipping, no purchasing through Amazon.fr, no access at all unless you are either on American soil or have a US shipping address.

A big thanks to my mother for getting involved in this situation since,  although I am American, I am living in France, which makes sending things by mail from the US exponentially more difficult.  Only an American would promise things on which she was unsure if she could actually deliver…….

I have realized that in the US, we usually say ‘yes’ then we say ‘no,’ whereas I’ve learned that the French generally start with ‘no’ and stick with it.

Could the exportation of these dolls be a career path for me?  Is it completely legit?  I’m pretty sure that the answers to those questions would be ‘no’ and ‘no’ again, but someone should consider this, since there is apparently an entire continent of girls here dying to take their dolls to the fake hairdresser.

20130120-230119.jpg

IDEA #2:  Nun Candy Exporter

For several summers of my childhood, my parents had a business that was located directly across the street from a penny candy store.  The people who opened it didn’t have many other customers than our gang of friends and since it was the 70s I’ve imagined since then that they were likely selling something else out of the back of the store to make ends meet.  But in those years, my love of pure sugar candy (not chocolate!) was born.

Within the first few months of living in France, Tim happened to stumble upon a small store in a very quaint town and when he came home, he said, “You MUST go there.  It will end up being your favorite store.  They have candy.”  Tim knows me well and when I did drive over there (the very next day), I found the perfect French version of my favorite childhood shop, but rather than selling candy dots, they were selling sucre d’orge.

Sucre d’orge is essentially barley candy made with the natural sugars of barley, rather than the corn syrup version of barley candy that is found in the US.  Sucre d’orge was originally made in the 17th century by Benedictine monks and it still shaped, as it originally was, in the shape of a triangle (or trinity).  I started calling it ‘Nun Candy’ because of its religious origins and when I eat it, I feel better about myself, which I’m pretty sure is what church is supposed to do for you, isn’t it?

Do we need religion as more of a topic of conversation in the US and would my business of bringing Nun Candy to the masses make the things better or worse?  You decide and let me know.

20130120-230656.jpg

IDEA #3:  Fondue Pot Exporter

I love fondue – cheese, oil, chocolate, I don’t care.  I love it all.

A few years before moving to France I really wanted to serve fondue on Christmas Eve and the only thing standing in my way (besides affordable Gruyère) was my flimsy enamel fondue pot.  Was my old dingy pot up to the task of being the proud receptacle for that special holiday meal?  Apparently not, since only moments into my search on eBay, I came across what I considered to be the Cadillac of all fondue pots, Le Creuset.

I became fixated on the Le Creuset pot and then I proceeded to spend an hour (or 8) trolling on eBay trying to win auction after auction, with no luck at all.   My dreams of melted cheese for Christmas were nearly dead.  I could never go back to my shabby pot and with only two weeks until Christmas, I decided to make one last effort at the pot of my dreams.

One night I stayed up until 1am (on a work night), waited until the very last moment (as advised by my friend), and placed a large bid – one that was way above the going price.  With only seconds to spare, the auction automatically went up and up, until the poor other schmuck bidding against me, ran out of time.  I finally won the fondue pot!  I will not divulge the price I paid that night, but it was well worth it, given that my other option was a nervous breakdown.  Mental health = priceless.

In any case, I received my bright orange fondue pot just in time for Christmas and we used it then and many times since.  In fact, we’ve used it so much since then, that it was the first thing I put in the box when we were having out stuff shipped over from the US.

Prior to our move, I was well aware of the French love of all things cheese, but I was not aware of the fact that the French treat fondue pots just like they do in the US – as stuff to be sold at yard sales and given to junk shops.  The main difference between the US and France in this case, is that while the Americans are getting rid of thin enamel pots at their yard sales, the French are getting rid of Le Creuset fondue pots.  SUPER JUNK SCORE!  Especially since my junk hunting skills are very sharp (example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4).

My interest in fondue pots has gone from a holiday obsession to a virtual sickness, since all Le Creuset pots cast off by others are readily welcomed into my home.  At first I thought that I might need another pot or two, just in case I had a larger fondue party at some point.  And when I added a couple more, I thought I might be able to issue an invite to my extended family as well.  After two years here, I am nearly ready to invite my entire town in Vermont over for fondue, I have that many pots.  It is so hard to pass these things up, when I usually find them for less than 1€.  Yes, that does say 1 euro.  I’ve promised them to friends and family upon our return, but I think I may have a few left over…..

Should I stay in France and consider becoming a full-time fondue pot buyer and exporter?  Or should I just amass so many before I leave that I need another shipping container and then I can spend the rest of my life selling them on eBay?  Could it work as a career plan?

20130120-230013.jpg

IDEA #4:  Blogger

It seems like this could work if the following things were true:

  • Anyone beside my mother read my blog
  • I had real people making comments on my blog who were not related to me
  • I posted more than once every couple of weeks
  • I had some companies who would give me money to write this kind of drivel
  • I had some sort of cool contest or giveaway sponsored by some amazing company, or at least a big box store.

A likely career path?  Probably not.

20130120-230136.jpg

Immediate Plan:

So, here’s my newest idea, in an attempt to get a couple more people to comment on this blog, I am sponsoring my own giveaway.  There is no Home Depot Gift Card and no iPad, but instead you can win something even better.  You can win a genuine ‘used’ Le Creuset fondue pot, straight from France and a very nice box of Nun Candy.  How’s that for my attempt at masquerading as a real blogger?

Here are the contest rules, made up by me as I’m writing this:

  1. You have to be willing to wait for your fondue pot/Nun Candy until the summer/early fall, since I will be happy to pay for shipping them to you, but not from France, only from Vermont once I get back there.
  2. You must live in the US (not sure I can afford international shipping on these things – heavy!).
  3. I can’t guarantee that your fondue pot will be orange, but I can guarantee that it will be nice.  It may or may not come with fondue forks, since nice forks aren’t as easy to find.  I can, however, guarantee that the Nun Candy will be tasty.
  4. In order to enter, you just need to make a comment on this blog about why you should win the fondue pot/Nun Candy and/or leave me career advice.
  5. The contest is open from now until my feet touch American soil in August.  How’s that for a large window of opportunity?
  6. To pick the winner I will use what all the other cool bloggers seem to do and put all the comments into that random number generator, so be sure to include you email address when you submit your comment (but don’t expect to hear from me for at least 6 months).  Either that, or I will do eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
  7. If you are a family member or friend who already knows he/she is getting a fondue pot, pretend that you’re someone else and leave a comment anyway.  I can use all the help I can get.
  8. Here’s another idea:  If you happen to win the fondue pot and you would rather take a road trip to Vermont to pick it up, I would be happy to treat you to a nice Vermont beer or two, while you’re in town.  Maybe you could film your road trip to Vermont on the quest for the French fondue pot and you could submit it to Sundance as an indie film?  Good idea, non?
  9. Since this contest is not sponsored by anyone but me, I reserve the right to make other rules for this contest if I realize that I’ve made a massive mistake in some way.

I promise, the winner of this contest will really get a fondue pot and some Nun Candy from me.

Good luck, Ma.

20130120-230151.jpg

french word of the day

Vomir is the verb nobody wants to learn……..first-hand anyway.  Not sure I really need to translate the meaning of that one.

Just when we were ramping up for our big crêpe flipping holiday, Eamon and half the school came down with the the “gastro,” as they call it here.  This put our jackpot winning plans on hold and canceled the crêpe event at school.  We’re making crêpes this weekend instead, but I’m afraid we may have missed the holiday deadline for flipping crepes and getting lucky with gold coins.

Fortunately, the boulanger doesn’t mind helping us out in a crisis.  Yesterday when I stopped by the bakery, here is what I found:

20120203-132156.jpg

Crêpes à la maison – we didn’t throw them, we (minus Eamon) just ate them.  Yum!

If anyone wants to spend their holiday coin fortune on a small vacation home in France, let me know.  I’ve got my eye on a hipster compound for you.

holiday warning!

In the past I’ve told you about a few kooky French holiday celebrations after they’ve happened.  Today I just found out about another quirky holiday coming up so I’d thought I’d give you a couple of days advanced notice so that you can celebrate along with us.  The impending holiday is called La Chandeleur or Candlemas.  Since I haven’t lived through this one yet, I’ll give you the rundown from Wikipedia:

In France, crêpes are traditionally served on Candlemas (La Chandeleur), February 2. This day was originally Virgin Mary’s Blessing Day but became known as “avec Crêpe Day”, referring to the tradition of offering crêpes. The belief was that if you could catch the crêpe with a frying pan after tossing it in the air with your left hand and holding a gold coin in your right hand, you would become rich that year.[5]

Apparently, at school today the teachers pulled out some crêpe pans and the kids were practicing tossing gold coins to improve their chance for riches in advance of the holiday.  I’ll let you know how it works out both at school and at home, since you better believe I’ll be throwing crêpes and gold coins on what I consider to be Groundhog Day.  To be honest, I think that throwing crêpes and coins is much more fun than watching a groundhog.  Sorry Phil.

If you’re interested in making French crêpes, there are 2 kinds.  The first is called galette which is a savory type of crêpe made buckwheat flour.  It is usually used for dinner crêpes with things like cheese and smoked fish inside.  The other type of crêpe is made with white flour and is mainly used for dessert crêpes with sweet things inside.

Here are the recipes for both types of crêpes:

Best of luck for many riches this year!  Let me know how it goes.

galette des rois

One of the coolest things about being in France is getting to experience the many little celebrations that I’ve never heard of before.  Also, there’s not much I like more than little celebrations which involve cake.  Bring on Epiphany!

The latest in the lineup of little celebrations is the Feast of the Epiphany which happened on January 6th. This holiday clearly has religious meaning, but I choose not to get too caught up in the religious aspect of it and spend all my energy focusing on the cake that comes with it.

The cake for Epiphany is called Le Galette des Rois and it is basically a round, puff-pastry tart with almond or apple filling inside. Also baked inside this cake is a little porcelain figurine, called a fève, that ends up in one piece of the cake when it is all sliced up. Whenever you buy this cake you are also given a paper crown to go with it.

Here’s what we knew about this cake before arriving in France: nothing.

We assumed that you just cut up the cake and whomever gets the fève gets to wear the crown. Of course, each time we bought the cake (nearly daily for a week) there was a lot of jockeying and peeking inside the cut pieces of cake to try to deduce which piece held the fève.  This diminished from the overall joy of eating the cake, since there was always chaos surrounding the distribution of pieces.  About mid way through our cake eating spree, we were finally set straight by a French friend. Apparently there are a specific set of rules for eating this cake which diminishes the chaos and boosts the enjoyment.  Here are the official French rules:

1) the youngest person in the room sits under the table and the cake is then sliced into equal pieces for the number of people at the table

2) as the pieces are getting ready to be distributed, the youngest person calls out he name of the person to whom each piece of cake should go (no peeking!)

3) when all the pieces are doled out, everyone eats the cake and waits anxiously to see who gets the fève

4) once the fève is found, the person who finds it is considered the king (or queen) and then that person gets to choose a different person to wear the crown

Now that we know the official rules, eating the Galette des Rois is much more fun, however I still have yet to win the fève.  Yesterday I found out that the cakes are being sold until the end of January at the bakeries.  There is still hope for me.

Part of the fève party at our house with Remi le Radis leading the way.

20120116-120650.jpg

a year of adventurous eating

There are a lot of good things about being a parent:  the hugs, the kisses, the eternal love, etc. But then…………there are the bad things. Like the smirky look on your kid’s face as sage advice you so freely dole out comes back to bite you in the ass.

Before we moved to France, I would often tell my kids when they were presented with food they didn’t necessarily like, “Being an adventurous eater in life is really important. How are you going to travel around the world if you will only eat hotdogs? They don’t serve hotdogs in Thailand.”

This is especially great advice when you live in the US and you are trying to feed your kids something like a different variety of sliced bread. In addition, I also used to also say things like, “It’s rude not to eat something when it’s served to you. Put a smile on your face and suck it up.” Also really good advice. Sometimes.

Here’s the main trouble……..we now live in France. Since our arrival, my kids have turned into the adventurous eaters that I had always hoped they’d be. As you may remember, they eat a four course meal every day at school and they are served any number of strange food items that they’ve never had before. At school they are served mussles, veal, beef with olive sauce, squid, and loads of stinky cheese, among many other things.

But here’s the catch – I could eat cheese morning, noon, and night, but when it comes to meat I’m a closet vegetarian.  It’s not that I have any sort of moral or ethical opposition to eating meat, it’s just that I really don’t like it and I never really have.  Every once in a while I’ll break down and have a good burger, but most days I would much rather eat a whole pot of squash soup.  But in a country like France, there is not only an abundance of cheese, but also an abundance of meat.  Foie gras is just the tip of the big meat iceburg.  One trip to the open air market downtown will expose you to more animal body parts than you even knew existed and the French eat them all with gusto.  And now my kids do too.

I actually had a French friend say to me recently, “I can’t understand why anyone would be a…………..what do you call that……..when somebody only eats vegetables?  Oh yes, a vegetarian!  That doesn’t make any sense.”  I did not take that opportunity to share my personal feelings on the subject.  I just stuffed more cheese in my mouth.

My boys haven’t exactly used the “adventurous eater” guilt against me yet, but it is only a matter of time before they realized that I’m always hiding behind the wheel of cheese and avoiding the lamb.  I think I may start to call myself something that the French might understand – a cheesatarian.

To demonstrate what adventurous eaters my kids have become, I’ll share with you a conversation we had recently while walking home from school:

Eamon: The lunch at school today was so gross. It was this beef stuff with this really gross sauce all over it. I couldn’t eat it.

Owen: That’s funny, I kind of liked it……………..

Me: What was it? Do you know?

Eamon: I have no idea, but it was so gross that Maxence barfed at lunch when he ate it.

Owen: Yeah, that part of the day was pretty gross.

Me: Oh no! Was he feling sick before lunch too?

Eamon: No, he just tasted the lunch, he didn’t like it, and then barfed on the table.

Me: Yikes! Did his parents have to come get him?

Eamon: No, the lunch lady just cleaned it up and then Maxence ate his dessert.

Me: Oh gross! What did you guys do while all of this was happening?

Owen: I just kept eating – I thought the lunch was really good!

Eamon: I just ate my dessert during it all. Mum, I can assure you, if you tasted the lunch, you wouldn’t have liked it either.

I’m pretty sure he’s right.

Here is the meat that almost hit me in the face as I walked around the corner of the truck – a terrible sight for a cheesatarian.

20120106-121545.jpg

me & j

J. Peterman and I go WAY back.  For those of you who have no idea who J. Peterman is, think back to the Seinfeld days……….  Remember the company Elaine worked for and her ridiculous boss?  That’s J. Peterman.

To give you a clear picture of myself during my formative years, I will let you in on a little secret.  I had a major pre-Seinfeld obsession with the J. Peterman Company and catalogue.  I loved the travel stories in the catalogue and I even loved the fact that you couldn’t really tell what you would get if you chose to order something, since all the images were sketches and not pictures.  It was almost as if you didn’t really need to know what it looked like, since it was assured to be cool just because it was in the catalogue.

I’m not going to lie, I spent hours of my life reading and rereading the stories presented in this catalogue over the years.  I also had a dream that someday I would be the person traveling around the world, finding these cool things and writing these stories.  I loved J. before he was a joke on Seinfeld.

But I guess you know, that my dream of life with J. Peterman (or at least a job with the J. Peterman Company) was not realized.

Fast forward to my present life.  Sadly, once J. Peterman hit the big time with Seinfeld we fell out of touch.  I didn’t wait with bated breath for his correspondence to me. I just gave up on him.  I moved on.

In the meantime, I went to college, got married, had kids and moved to France, without giving J. Peterman a thought.

While in France, I’ve accomplished many things including finding the best junk shop in all of France.  You may recognize it from some older posts – it’s called Emmaüs Brie.  This summer, while shopping at Emmaüs with a friend from the US (hiya Tami!), I spotted something that looked very interesting.  It seemed to be a miniature apple press used to make apple cider.  Although it was out of my cheap skate junk price range, it looked so interesting I had a hard time passing it by.

After we walked by it, I started thinking about the party potential of this mini apple press.  Imagine a party where I buy a bazillion apples and I set up this press and I get the kids to stand around and press cider all night to entertain themselves……….  Sounds like a good party to me.

When I mentioned my party idea offhandedly to Owen, he was hooked.  He’s the only person I know who loves a party more than me.  He wanted that press BADLY.  He even offered up some of his own hard-earned cash to get me to buy it.  And I’m a total sucker for random objects, so I did.

That day, we left Emmaus with the cutest little apple press you’ve ever seen.

A week or so later, I bought a bunch of apples and we gave our press a try.  To say that it was hard to press apples with this thing would be an understatement.  We spent a couple of hours in the blazing sun with it and ended up with a half cup of apple juice that we all had to share.  I had planned to write this great blog post about it, but since our pressing had a bitter end, I filed it away as a hopeless case.

Here we were, when our optimism was still in tact:

20110905-050209.jpg

So what does this have to do with J. Peterman?  I’ll tell you.  I recently started thinking about J. again and pondering why we’d lost touch so many years ago.  So I did what any jilted ex would do and I googled him and found out that he’s still in business, selling dreams with his sketched clothing.  And since I’m also a sucker for nostalgia, I asked to receive a catalogue in the mail to relive the old times.  Once I ordered the catalogue J. also asked me if I’d like to receive email updates from him and I replied, “Of course!”

When the first catalogue came, I was seriously transported back in time.  It was as if nothing had changed between us.  He’s still writing about exotic locations and selling expensive clothing and I’m still soaking it up like a school girl.  I read the catalog 3 time the first day it came and I even considered buying a long velvet dress worn by a Russian baroness that J. Peterman met in a smoky bar.  I wish I were joking.

But here is the proof that you can’t mess with destiny.  Just the other day as I was reading an email from J. Peterman,  imagine my surprise when I saw this pop up:

20111220-213927.jpg

And here is what I realized:

a) that thing is a grape press, not an apple press (not sure how I missed this, since we live in the country of wine)

and

b) my fate is clearly entwined with J’s after all.

After all these years, he might finally appreciate me for what I bring to our relationship.  Namely, my strength for finding good junk.