June 2, 2007 - Returning Home

As with all trips, this one is already starting to feel more special as I depart. As I waited in line at the airport and talked to strangers about my experiences, they became almost exaggerated. I totally agree with my friend Karen that traveling is 1/3 the planning, 1/3 being there, and 1/3 the memories and how they expand and become illuminated over time.

Normandy, On Rue Tatin, and everyone I met on my trip have left their mark and I'm a richer person for the experience. Bon Appetit!

Michele

June 1, 2007 - On Rue Tatin

Friday was our farewell lunch, and we started the lesson with a debate about foie gras and food politics and another demonstration on making homemade mayo. Although I've done this before in cooking school, we flavored these 3 ways - with tarragon, balsamic, and lemon/pepper - and they were fabulous to dip vegetables into as our first course.

The final meal was incredible:

Cucumber puree with fresh cheese (that had been drained)
Pasta with cream, walnuts and foie gras (killer! my new favorite dish of the week!)
Duck breast with orange sauce, almonds and cumin (oh no! my new new favorite dish!)
Green salad with honey vinaigrette
Fromages
Sauteed cherries with a little of the lemon ice cream and almond cookies (a little burned, thanks I think to Silvestro's hangover)

I went to dinner at the same restaurant Chaumier in Acquigny with Vicki for our parting night and had a wonderful fish special, then home to pack and head out to Paris for the airport in the morning.

May 31, 2007 - Rouen

I woke to a brilliant blue sky this morning, but at 8:30 the clouds began to roll in again. We drove to Rouen for the day and had appointments to visit the faincerie and the fromagier. I love the pottery, but it doesn't really match my decor at all so I opted to buy just a tiny sign for our new wine cellar as a souvenir.

The fromagier, Francois, was this adorable young French man - too bad he's married with kids or he'd be perfect for Susan. He was as passionate about his cheese as Herve was his wine and they both talk about how important sight and smell are before taste. We sampled both a young and an old Comte which is the top selling cheese in France by weight - it's slightly tangy like a Parmigiano, but really buttery. Once again I was surprised to see I really like the harder cheese better.

We dined at Restaurant 37, a trendy new sister restaurant to a Michelin 2-star place next door. Our lunch was selected for us by the chef:

Parmesan crackers
Cod cooked in a slightly acidic broth with braised carrots, fennel and celery as a bed
Dessert was a fudgy chocolate cake on a shortbread crust with a quennelle of raspberry sorbet surrounded by macerated berries - WOW!

After lunch we had free time to shop (my haul included new shoes, a boning knife for fish, Comte cheese, a cheese board, beer meant to go with cheese, and some French eye cream) and then I met up with Silvestro and Vicki for a coupe du Champagne right neat the Cathedral. The skies opened up just as we got into the car!

The evening was a free night (Susan's son had a school play and in hindsight we all should have gone) so I went to Chaumier in Acquigny, a pub/restaurant, for dinner with Silvestro.

Steak frites the way you dream it should be done
Salade verte

Knowing we were friends of Susan's, the proprietor set out the good bottle of Calvados after the bill was already settled, and Silvestro must have had 6 glasses. Not sure he'll be up early for class tomorrow...yikes, I didn't get home until 11:30!

May 30, 2007 - On Rue Tatin

Wednesday is market day in nearby Le Neubourg, but unfortunately is was freezing cold and spritzing rain. Not to be deterred, we set off in Susan's vintage VW van and started the morning off with a coffee before heading out to shop. It was fun to learn how the markets work, see what's local and what's been shipped in, and listen to all the vendors calling out to "Le Americain".

Our mission was to buy something for a "picnic" type of lunch, and my contribution was a country pate and once I had purchased that I continued on through the market, fascinated by the kids holding chickens and rabbits that I hoped would not become someone's dinner soon.

Back at One Rue Tatin we cooked up the mussels Susan had purchased plus some tiny artichokes that Sue and I had found. We also cooked an omelet and a pound cake for the evening's wine tasting before sitting down to eat all goodies from the market. Lunch included:

Mussels in cider
Fried artichoke hearts
Pates and breads
Cheeses

We returned in the evening for a wine tasting with Herve from Honfleur. Listening to Herve talk about wine in French was like listening in to a private conversation about sex and seduction - he was mesmerizing. We learned about inflated Bordeaux prices, the regions of France that you don't hear as much about, and then did a tasting. For aromas, first sniff to catch the grapes and flowers, then swirl to pick up the deeper traits about the wine. Taste is your confirmation of what you saw and smelled, but you already have 80% opinion of whether you'll like it at this point. Taste has three phases: the attack, the development, and the finish - the attack and the finish are most important.

We then tasted 3 roses from 3 wineries, and then 3 reds from the same three wineries - all done in a blind taste test to see if we could match styles of the wines from the same wineries. My gut answer was 100% and I should have listened to that!

Dinner wasn't really dinner, but was a fabulous crudite of carrots, cucumbers, beets, radishes, turnips all drizzled with lemon oil and served with a dollop of mustard infused creme fraiche. Of course, many slices of baguette accompanied this. A red pepper and mint omelet followed, then dessert of poundcake with nuts and fruit glaze on top.

May 29, 2007 - On Rue Tatin

It's been raining for two days straight and combined with the fact that it was Sunday and a religious holiday on Monday, we haven't seen anyone in the town. This morning the sun came out and the stores are open which makes for an entirely different town.

Cooking lesson #2 started a little later today since we had a late night, and began with a review of the fish local to the Normandy region. I learned how to remove the pin bones from a delicate fish - my second learning of the week.
We made lunch for ourselves plus two paying guests who were coming just for lunch and the menu included:

New garlic soup (with whipped egg whites on top to make it frothy)
Mackerel with radishes and spring baby carrots (I didn't care for the strong taste of the mackerel)
Green salad with almond oil vinaigrette (do you see the pattern here?) and French bread
Fromages
Chocolate pots de creme (smooth and creamy - like chocolate pudding only better!)

Susan demonstrated how to make homemade marshmallows which was very cool, and I might have to try this at home (even though they are a bit addictive).

I popped over to the art exhibit in Acquigny before dinner and bought this mixed media painting of an artichoke flower from the artist who is 84 years old! Susan says he has lived with his partner for 30 years but never came out of the closet - sad...

For dinner we went to an Algerian restaurant in Acquigny owned by a friend of Susan's because she wanted us to understand the African influence on food and politics in France. She explained that the French seem to hate the Algerian people as a group, but love them as individuals, and African food is fundamental to the changing French cuisine.

Dinner included:

Salad - cold dishes, largely unidentifiable, but seeming like hummus and eggplant and tomato dishes all meant to be eaten with the thick flat bread
Lamb shanks that fell off the bone in a mild curry sauce served with stewed prunes and Marcona almonds - this could be the reason alone to discover Algerian cuisine!
Algerian pastries for dessert (plus the marshmallows we had snuck in!)

Algerian wines were served an my recommendation is that you not rush out to buy them just let - they are still working out the kinks in making wines on par with other regions.

May 28, 2007 - On Rue Tatin

The morning session of class started promptly at 10am with a discussion about those amazing Norman cows, why creme fraiche from them is so much richer, and how sea salt is harvested in Brittany. Susan recommends using coarse gray salt for grilling and in pasta water, fluer de sel is a finishing salt, and fine gray salt for all other cooking. She makes flavored salts like cinnamon salt and using it on things like lamb.
Our menu for lunch included:
Braised asparagus with pistachio oil
Rabbit with sorrel and lardons (I butchered the rabbit which was a first for me)
Quinoa with pine nut oil (I bought some of this oil it's so good)
Fromage assortment with wonderful breads
Garden salad with hazelnut vinaigrette (my new favorite salad dressing!)
Strawberry parfait

During the meal we learned about the 95 year old priest next door who invited Susan and her kids for tripe on their very first night in Louviers, discussed the French school system and how kids are taught never to question authority (what would my outspoken daughter do here?!), and how France is virtually bankrupt but the people still want social programs.

After a short break/nap in the afternoon we returned for the evening lesson and dinner:

Cocoa spice nuts with fleur de sel - really different and tasty
New potatoes with a smoked herring mayo and young salad greens - one of my favorite dishes all week!
Spice rubbed pork loin with onion marmalade
Goat cheeses (see below)
Green salad with peanut vinaigrette
Rhubarb poached in vanilla served over lemon ice cream - my favorite dessert of the week!

During dinner we had Susan's friend's with us - Alain is a cheese maker and taught us all about goat cheeses, ashed or not, young (days), medium (weeks), and old hard goat cheese (6 months aging). I found that I really prefer the aged over the type that's sold in the soft tube in the US and was astonished to find how different each of them tasted. Alain's partner is a florist in Rouen.

May 27, 2007 - Alone in Normandy, Louviers, On Rue Tatin

After breakfast of a quick yogurt and coffee near the hotel, I set out to deliver my husband to the airport. Here's a tip for you - make sure you know which terminal your airline flies from at CDG in Paris because if you miss it the first time it takes 15 minutes driving in circles to find it again!

I was so sad to see my husband leave and be alone in France - for my next solo travels, I'll be certain to travel alone first and have my husband meet me for the second half. I drove from CDG to Louviers, and uneventful drive along the highways outside of Paris. Once in Louviers I had to call the hotel to get directions. The woman spoke no English and the man was willing to speak to me in Italian, but my brain wouldn't make the adjustment after 10 days hearing French.

It never occurred to me that nothing would be open in Louviers on Sunday at lunch time, so on the advice of the cooking school instructor I drove to Acquigny, a tiny town a couple miles away with an old chateau and for some reason several high end restaurants. I stepped into La Table du Bearnais and found it full of families having Sunday dinner, so I dined alone at a table for 5 that was set with roses tucked into the napkins.

Creme Brulee l'Aliyette - in between an onion custard and a creamy soup, served with salad and 3 slices of meat that I think is a type of bacon

Filet de Bar - sea bass gorgeously presented skin side up (I just can't get into the skin!) with garlic mustard sauce made with vermouth, risotto served in a tiny ring of zucchini slices, small mushrooms, a piping of potatoes Dauphinois, and peas.

Delice de D'Artagnan - specialty dessert of the house, an orange flavored mousse with creme brulee style caramelized sugar on top, served with caramel sauce and ice cream flavored with baking spices.

The poor woman serving be must have thought I was a reporter with all of the notes I was taking, so she kept bringing me menus and other information about dining in Normandy, and was distressed I didn't eat everything.

I returned to my hotel and zonked for a little while in front of CNN (did you know they get new news only every 3-4 days?) then had a brisk walk about town for a half hour to revive myself before heading to On Rue Tatin for the opening dinner for our cooking class which consisted of myself, Sue (retired, her husband Doug would join just for the meals), Vicki (from CA, her husband would meet her to go to Bordeaux at the end of class, and Silvestro (an Italian-American who now lives in Lecce, Puglia and runs a cooking school there called The Awaiting Table). Everyone seemed to get along and we were all excited for the week.

Susan Herrman Loomis author of French Farmhouse Cooking and the memoir On Rue Tatin, opened the school a few years ago in her home in Louviers, a 500 year old former convent. Here's the big spread from the first night:

Orange Wine Aperitif (excellent, recipe in her cookbook)
Olive & Parmigiano Sweet and Savory Crackers
Fresh Spring Pea Soup with just a touch of cream
Roast Guinea Hen with Citrus served with roasted new potatoes and roasted garlic
Salad du Jardin with walnut vinaigrette (the first of many flavored oils we would try)
Artisinal Cheeses from Normandy (at this point I was totally into the swing of having cheese after most dinners)
Rhubarb Tart with sliced strawberries that had been cooked in butter.

Dinner conversation was lively - the wine industry, changes in the cookbook publishing world, Susan getting divorced, and the food we were eating. Time for bed - first lesson at 10am the next day!

May 26, 2007 - Paris

Unknown to us when we decided to come to Paris, it was a holiday weekend and the opening weekend of the French Open tennis tournament, so the city was buzzing with activity. We had to switch hotels, which required moving our car to a garage closer to the new hotel which was on the right bank near the fancy shopping area. We hung out here for a breakfast of crepes with butter and sugar and coffee (I was fully addicted at this point to both the crepes and the coffee).
We get a kick out of buying street art on our travels - as much for the buying experience as the art itself - so we decided to walk up to Montmartre, the artist district that sits high on a hill outside of Paris overlooking the city and the home of the large Sacre Couer church. We made our way into the tiny pedestrian square where the artists set up shop and landed on two paintings done by a man from Croatia - they just happened to be Normandy and Brittany which was a perfect memoir from our trip. My husband always makes me pose with the artist - definitely dorky, but a fun memory!

After enjoying a bit of the bubbly and watching the crowds, we headed back to the hotel via the metro and grabbed some bread and cheese at the market to snack on in the hotel while we packed and got ready for dinner. The woman from the hotel had made us reservations at Le Bilboquet, a restaurant and live jazz club. We arrived at 8:00 and by 9:00 most of the Parisians started showing up and the music began. Great fun and a terrific spot for our final night in France.

Entree - gazpacho

Salmon fillet with basmati rice and some Bearnaise I stole from my husband's steak

Chocolate ice cream (that we ordered just to extend our time in the club and enjoy the music)

May 25, 2007 - Paris!

I'm not much for spontaneous travel - I plan my trips 18 months in advance, I book my hotels 9 months in advance, and I have my touring planned 3 months in advance. So my husband was both surprised and delighted that we decided to end our tour of the Normandy countryside and head into Paris for the weekend. It was about a 4 hour drive from Mont Saint Michel, but we made it without any problems, and even managed to read the map and navigate our way into the 1st Arrondisement to our hotel Le Relais du Louvre. We wandered around, had some snacks and drinks before getting caught in a deluge of rain which did us in.


We returned to the hotel drenched, showered and went to Le Fumoir right next to the Louvre for dinner. It was nice to have a non-smoking dining room (new in Paris - although the non-smoking section is usually small and relegated to the back of the restaurant) and we relaxed and savored a quiet and very French bistro type of dinner:

Green salad - there's something great about salads in France and I'm pretty sure it's the simple vinaigrettes and fresh greens.

Chicken on polenta that was outstanding

Lemon & thyme sorbet

May 24, 2007 - Mont Saint Michel and Brittany Coast

We had a lazy morning before heading over to the island by crossing the causeway on foot. The causeway was put in place about 100 years ago, and the resulting disruption of the tides along with years of sediment shifting has caused a buildup of sediment and the tides rarely come around the island now. Instead, it sits amidst large expanses of mud and you see tourists walking out on it for a mile. An engineering project will replace the causeway with a pedestrian only bridge and work to restore the marine environment over the coming years.The sheep graze on the marsh land which is salty because of the tides coming in and out, so their meat has a distinctive flavor.

Once on the island we were bombarded with tourists and made a beeline for the abbey itself, intent on doing the full audio tour and gaining some understanding of why the monk who built this was so inclined.

After the tour we ducked into the famous Mere Poulard restaurant for the more famous fluffy omelets made over an open flame to this day. Talk about a tourist trap, two omelets with home fried potatoes and a couple of pieces of bacon set us back about $130!

After just 2 hours visiting Mont Saint Michel we wanted nothing more than to escape this tourist trap, so jumped in our car and decided to take advantage of the gorgeous day and drive along the coast of Brittany. The gorgeous resort town of Concale looks across the bay at Mont Saint Michel, and Pointe Grouin was stunningly beautiful. St. Malo, a huge city on the coast, was a disappointment so we kept driving on through the town to Dinnard which is a lazy beach town. We hung out at a beach side cafe (even though the temperature was 15 degrees cooler than in Normandy just 30 minutes away!) and indulged in a crepe buerre sucre (I had even managed to learn the French to order it by this point in the trip!

Back at the hotel, we again decide to stay close to home and dined with this spectacular sunset over Mont Saint Michel.

Smoked salmon with avocado

Roast chicken with potato gratin

Yet another green apple sorbet with Calvados so my husband could try it!

May 23, 2007 - The Market, Villedieu les Poeles, Mont St. Michel

We departed Bayeux in time to stop in nearby Villers-Bocage for the weekly market. Unlike an American farmers' market that is largely produce and some artisinal food products, the weekly markets in small French towns feature everything from ladies fashions to produce to live chickens and rabbits for sale. The children are out of school on this day and the whole town seems to be there shopping. We shared a sausage on a baguette with ketchup and a crepe with butter and sugar (my newest French addiction) and just walked around taking it all in. Before leaving town we stopped at the brasserie for a drink and I finally had a chance to try the hard cider which tastes like bitter medicine - not a drink I'll add to my list! The air was the perfect temperature, the sky was sunny and blue, and this tiny town was a perfect 2 hour stop.

Leaving Villers-Bocage we continued through the Norman countryside to the very tiny town of Villedieu les Poeles that just happens to be THE spot for buying French copper cookware, and I just had to get a piece. I settled on a mid-size crepe pan since I didn't already have one, and tried to figure out how much it was going to add to the weight of Greg's suitcase. After a drink in the outdoor cafe and a small salad, we were off again and on our way to Mont Saint Michel.

As we approached we were awed by the view of the cows grazing and the sight of the abbey in the distance and I finally managed to get my husband to pull over long enough for me to take a picture. We settled into Le Relais Mont Saint Michel hotel which sits across the causeway from the abbey and has a terrific view - and frankly is removed from the Disney tourist environment on the actual island.
There are very few options for dinner near Mont Saint Michel so we stayed at the hotel, enjoyed the view of the sunset over the water, and enjoyed a delightful dinner of traditional Norman dishes:

Mussels in cream - really decadent and tender

Rack of lamb with potato gratin

Apple sorbet with Calvados - I had to dump the Calvados because it was so strong, but the green apple sorbet was heavenly

May 22, 2007 - The D-Day Beaches

Although the Hotel D'Argouges in Bayeux was lovely, our day started with the city turning off our water at 9am, so we were up early and on the road to see the beaches of Normandy. Karen Brown (of Karen Brown's travel guides) had recommended to me that we start our touring in Arromanches because of their museum, a great tip.
We first visited the 360 video presentation that is largely images and music, then sat through the video in the small town museum that detailed how Churchill led the charge to construct a harbor in England and transport it and build it in the sea in front of Arromanches in just a few days so that the allied troops had a way to come on shore. Remnants of the port still jut up from the water, a haunting reminder of what this must have been like during WWII. After the video we noticed an elderly Brit dressed in his uniform and ribbons, and the French school children were honored to talk with him.

We continued on to the American Cemetery which was sobering to say the least. I had not been aware that the cemetery used Star of David markers for Jewish soldiers killed during the war and even though I had seen movies, the sheer volume of crosses was overwhelming. Looking at Omaha Beach it was hard to imagine that what today is this gorgeous beach full of greenery was at one time the site of such a blood bath.

Our last stop on the beaches tour was Point du Hoc, the famous sight were the allied troops scaled the walls to surprise the Germans and make advances into Normandy. The most striking reminder of the war here are all of the huge craters in the ground where bombs fell. It looks like the moon with grass growing on it.

We continued driving along the coast, stopping in the tiny resort spot of Grancamp-Masey for lunch at the only spot open, and enjoyed salmon in buerre blanc sauce that was rich and delicious and accompanied by an assortment of vegetables - the perfect impetus for visiting Isigny-S.-Mer to taste the butter and cheeses of Normandy. Although the factory was closed for touring, we learned that the Norman cows produce half as much milk as a Jersey dairy cow, but it's much richer in flavor and fat. It's also addictive!

Back in Bayeux, we dined at Le Petit Normand for dinner:

Skewers of monkfish and apple slices wrapped in bacon with cider sauce and vegetables

Tart Fine Normand - the ubiquitous apple tart this time served with French vanilla ice cream and sprinkled with powdered sugar