Friday, April 29, 2016

The View From Up There

 “Mommy, Up” my tiny voice barely audible as I tugged on my mother’s below the knee knitted beige and orange sweater. My neck straining and pudgy finger pointing to another little girl, one about my age, perched a world above me as she sat atop her father’s shoulders, chin rested on his thinning head of curly hair, the sparkle of the Disneyland Main Street Parade played out before me better in the reflection of her eyes than what I was actually able to see by desperately trying to shove my pin head through the throng of long, to me anyway, legs that lined the curb. The night sky swollen and heavy with the smell of cotton candy, fireworks, sour pickles, sweat, lemonade and hard candy suckers. My once a year visit to see the happiest place on earth. “Sam, I can’t. Come stand in front of me, maybe you can see better” her painful to the both of us response as my agonizingly single mother tussled my already messy hair and looked, just as longingly at the family beside us. The parade I could see in her eyes then made me sort of glad I couldn’t see…..much.

 Years later I was able to see the whole light parade on my own two feet. The loud music, the twinkle lights of Cinderella’s pumpkin inspired carriage, the painted grinning princess graciously waving her silken white glove covered slender arm in our direction as Jiminy Cricket skipped along behind her dodging piles of horse poo and the occasional three year old that came darting out from the curb. The whole of the ordeal looking, feeling, so much more exciting and enthralling when I was watching it play out on the face of a little girl whose legs were dented by her father’s thick fingers, him holding her tight as he bounced up and down and told her who was coming next. Never really suffered from that whole grass is greener thing, just sort of accepted that everyone’s view can make a massive impact on how you see and feel things. I never quite got the worship and adoration of the whole shiny, polished, white gloved show, Disney or otherwise, but I very early on found my desire, inspiration and place canonizing the tiny details. The face before the paint. The reflections and reactions. The genuine. To this day I’m not content to not see but I follow the faces, the scents, the thick fingers and storied ridges more than the twinkle lights and horse poo covered main streets. 

Our first full day in Caen was spent listening to the waves lap and splash upon the sand and monuments at Omaha Beach. The sun just splitting the clouds as we stepped out of the car and without words or enough breath in our lungs we tiptoed upon the grains of real, and agonizing history. I heard nothing but the thump of my heart in my ears and the slosh and pull of utterly wrenching water scraping, cleaning but never erasing what had happened there. The cold air slapping against my cheeks couldn’t even begin to sting as much as feeling of loss, and pride, one feels standing there.

 From there it was on to the American Cemetery and there simply are not words big enough to explain or express what it is like to walk the gorgeous tree-lined, achingly silent path, make a slight bend left in the road and see before you the stark white, crossed bones, an ocean of them laid before you, your freedom to be there because of their courage and sacrifice. The sun once again pulling the clouds aside, a warm beam of sun splashing upon my icy cold pink cheeks and there was but one thing to do and I did it, I wept.

 Randomly walking the rows, reading the names, seeing slightly wilted flowers left by loved ones, the children or grandchildren of loved ones, sort of nestled between the green lawn and the severity of the blazingly white crosses….I couldn’t stay silent for fear that the knot in my throat would overtake me. Instead I whispered their names aloud as I passed, my fingertips tracing the etched letters as the warm bits of air stamped with their names left my lips. The day was a gift. An honor and a gift. 

Big heavy powerful day behind us and day two was all about exploration. Caen is sort of centrally located enough in Normandy that we were able to just pop into the rental car, wiz about in the round abouts and be spun out in a direction that was sure to give me something to devour. Aesthetically, emotionally or as per my favorite, the kind of treasures that part my lips, fill my palate and warm me from throat to tummy. The sun triumphantly high, the air engorged with mossy, wet, green aromas that reeked, in that come-get-me way, of wet woods and new life. Our bright orange rental car spit out on what just so happened to be the cider trail. I felt my legs get just a touch longer in the passenger seat, the fact that I was there, in that place so far from my own history and reality, feeling like thick fingers holding me tight as I soaked in the entire view. 

There is something sort of isolating about riding through tiny towns in Europe, or France anyway, midday in early spring. The weather not yet welcoming of families sitting alfresco for or after a meal, and there are few, if any, people taking unhurried walks on the side of the road. Windows are shuttered and closed and the loudest sound we heard was the rubber of our own tires taking in dirt and petite clay soaked pebbles. No radio, no outside noise, no idle chit-chat and nothing but the stillness of post lunch resting, and the click-click-clicking of my eyes taking in each and every layer of it I could. 


The tight tiny road/trail allegedly built for two way traffic, our built for this Euro car, taking up two thirds of the road which would have caused me severe angst if I weren’t so fucking engrossed in the utter lusciousness of the garden-like splendor that was spinning around my head so fast I was punch drunk and tingling. The vibrant colors, grand naked trees, two or three hundred of them in each patch, standing erect and tall, leaves months ago shriveled up and fallen to the cold wet earth providing a plushy blanket of decomposition of feed for the next season. There they all stood, these massive skeletal frames like upright witches brooms standing in bunches shoulder to shoulder, brothers in arms, proud but not one too proud as to stand even an inch taller than its brethren. Perfectly aligned as if the universe knew I was coming and gave them all the uniform buzz cut.   

Whipping around each corner there was new feast for me to devour. A tuff of white smoke huffing from the slightly crumbling brick chimney of a century’s old home, the shutters closed revealing sincere shades of lavender and white, a tricycle left at the front steps and an open sign with an arrow pointing to an open, empty, barn offering cider samples. I pictured a family entertaining the three or four year old tricycler, coaxing her to finish her bowl of lentils before taking her nap, the men of the family talking about rebuilding fences, maybe fixing that crumbling fireplace when the weather is better and the ladies taking a few deep tokes of a cigarette between sips of dry cider and collecting the lunch dishes for washing. Would they see us, sure but did I want to bust into the picture and require them to slip on the silken white gloves?

I shook my head, snuggled into my voyeurism and nodded for us to move forward. I was feeling my own pangs. Pangs of isolation, pangs of hunger, those pangs that make your mouth and throat loosen and water, as your body readies for the warm hum and tingle of fruity and boozy satiation. My pangs aside I couldn’t bring myself to disrupt the screaming silence, so we just weaved about the snaking roads, feasted on the way the moisture from the morning rain clung to the thick and statuesque blades of grass making the field shimmer as if it were sprinkled with silver glitter. If I could capture the vibrancy and colors of that ride that day and feast from it for the rest of my days I would never grow tired or underwhelmed. I’m here now, just weeks from my last nibble as it were and I feel like I might be detoxing….might be in need of, just, one, more, hit. Until the next. 

We gorged on history, beauty, the relative serenity after Paris. The apple and pear based cider and booze, diversity of the wine shops in a French region where they don’t actually make wine, ate sick amounts of ocean treats, savory crepes stuffed with cheese, sausage and runny eggs, each other’s cold air stained cheeks, quiet, perfectly manicured un-manicured scenery and the knowing that there were still weeks of wine ahead of us.   

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Paris Bite By Byte

Ah the fun bits of travel in Europe. I fully hoped and intended  to have another two posts up by now but it turned out that the internet in my hotel here in Caen, (Normandy) and my laptop, not so much friends these two. Had to find us some usb whatsit to make things go so I am just now getting to press fingertips to virtual paper. Let’s just hope the goddamn wee-fee holds out!

We took the train from Paris to Caen. A three hour ride through mostly countryside, in a nearly empty train cabin, (and get it together United States, the trains here are not only highly functioning, they are really plush and junk. Didn’t have to squishy my fat bits or anything) gives one lots of time to slowly reflect. The gentle rock of the train, the humming of rail sliding over tracks, the occasional rustle of a neighbor’s newspaper and aside from the terrified gasp I’d belt out when another train brushed up against ours, or close to ours, which sent a “Bang!” and whizzing sound through the cabin…along with my “holy shit we’re all about to die” gasp, I was pouring over the previous 10 days like pages in a novel I got to smell, hear, feel and taste.

As I turned the pages of my memory I found myself dog-earing the bits I wanted to go back to. Sort of like marking up my mind with a stinky highlighter so I could quickly scan back and have all those images, aromatics and flavors leap from the page to my nose and palate once again. Let them take me back if only for those few seconds I opted to evoke them. I’ve never been one of those people that can read something and have it stick with me, probably one of, (but far, far away from the biggest) the reasons I’ve never even considered any kind of wine certification. I can read about this bank and that, the east facing slopes and the way northern Rhone Syrah should taste but if I’ve no personal connection to tie that memory to, well it ain’t sticking with me. Hell, I remember what old lovers smell and taste like more than the way they actually look. Just the way I’m built I guess. I can’t tell you what street I’m on more than half the time, but I can tell you exactly the moment I first smelled fresh white mushrooms, the right time to add the steak to a blistering hot pan by the way it smells and I can, to this day, remember what bubble gum and malted crunch ice cream taste like together even though I’ve not had that combination of flavors in over 35 years. Sound is close but for me it has been, and hopefully will forever be, smell and taste that paint the color of my life story.

Through the humming, crumpling, whizzing and rocking I swayed in my big plushy train seat and re-tasted my favorite bites of this trip to Paris….

N.V. De Sousa Brut Tradition Champagne - a producer I’ve had several times and while always tasty, not a wine I’ve carried in the shop. No other reason than I’ve got things we’ve already been working with that are similar and have an established following. I crawled, almost literally, up the stairs of our apartment in Paris the day we arrived, our flat not ready so I had to lug my swollen, beat, sleep deprived ass the extra flight to Amy’s pad. I was wheezing, unwashed, feeling downright disgusting. That was until my dear friend placed before me a fragile croissant, a thick brick of rich and creamy butter and an icy cold glass of De Sousa Brut Tradition. Exhale. I tore at my oh-so-flakey pastry, the skin shattering at my touch and falling toasty brown upon Amy’s table. Didn’t matter, it was the chewy, doughy flavored center I was after. An embarrassingly large wad of sweet butter spread across the tender exposed belly of the croissant, the two textures scrapping the back of my teeth as I took a bite and then, then….then came this nearly erotic shower of cold, also doughy, caramel apple rich bubbly wine to wash it all down with. I could have cried I was so happy in that moment. I still needed a shower and all but for the length of that glass I was revived, refreshed and reminded where I was about to be submerged into. It was Paris in a bite and sip. 


 The French Kebab & Stupid Rose – I think it was day two, (see I told you, days, streets, soil structure I can’t retain for shit but….) we were a bit too deep in our reveling, been drinking bottles of Rose all over, from our apartments to the local bars in our area. Our excitement to be there together coupled with jet lag and anxiety for Amy and my husband for their upcoming marathon and, and well we were in no shape to partake of anything too serious. Didn’t deserve it in fact. We wandered to the area near us known for their stall upon stall of kebab pushers, (kebab in France is like our gyros here in the states) all standing in a front window, long blade in their hands, slicing off ribbons of perfectly seasoned and cooked mystery meats from a slowly spinning cone. Who the fuck says no to that?! Not me dammit. Our tray of four kebab brought to our plastic table, all of us sort of teetering on wicked old chairs as we grabbed for our meat stuffed pocket wrapped in silver paper. The unwrapping of this perfection is one of the best parts. You pull the foiled paper back to see, and smell, charred bits of meat, creamy cucumber sauce, crunchy lettuce, tomatoes and a PILE of crispy French fries heaped on top. There is a moment of utter appreciation that, for us anyway, sounded like a communal orgasm. Balancing on the chair, hovering over the slightly grungy table, shoving each, truly glorious bite into our ready and needing faces, then washed down with some pitcher of gawdonlyknows pink stuff. It was perfect I tells ya.

Lunch At Le Comptoir Bistro – One of, if not my absolute, favorite meal in Paris from first to last bite. We’d eaten at a couple bistros already, had some wicked cool wines at Lavinia (look it up, and drool over the wines…the food, meh) but our late afternoon meal at this busy bistro was unforgettable. I can picture each faultless dish of this meal, mine and everyone else’s. I just got fat girl chills thinking of it. I started with chicken rillettes, something I’d never seen before but maybe because I always stop looking when I find the pork or rabbit ones. This potted slab of chicken with its own fat was served with a slaw made from celery root and granny smith apples and the second I let the warmth of my mouth melt those four things together I knew this was to be a dish that would haunt me. It will. It still does. We had it with a pitcher of Saumur-Champigny Blanc and that Chenin with those heady and fresh flavors, well once again a reminder of why Chenin is such a dazzling food wine.

My next course was a confit of pork with lentils. Now this tasted like slow roasted pork shoulder, like tender shreds of porky rich flavor that had been formed into a disk that was bound together by something it took me a bit of time to figure out. I’ve always said I’d eat the ass out of some pig but once I tugged at the rubbery band around my gorgeous pork puck and figured out it was intestine, with the little pooper pucker on the end, well I was wrong. I shan’t be eating the actual ass out of any pork. That said, this dish left me speechless. Earthy lentils that had a smoky background that reminded me of bacon, so tenderly cooked that they surrendered when I pressed them with my tongue. The wholesome expression of pork, like real pig not some thinned out other white meat bullshit, the seasoning I suspect little more than salt and pepper. Each thing tasted in their glory. Stunning. 

Apartment Made Scrambled Eggs – a lazy, slow moving morning where I simply scrambled up some fresh eggs, the yolks deeply orange in color, and cooked them gently in, too much, sweet butter. When the eggs were just set I piled them on our plates and with my hands crumbled over the top some extra aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Not grated or shaved, no, I wanted the crumbled bits of succulent sweet cheese to just melt a little with the warmth of the just from the pan eggs. Scooped up with slabs of toasted baguette I’d rubbed with fresh garlic and we were in heaven. 

2015 Roses – all of them. Trust me. 2015 is looking to be a legendry vintage throughout France and these roses are not only built like it, drinking them is a little like tasting history in the making. Hunt, gather, guzzle and go back for more.

Post-Race Prawns & Pink Wine – the night after my husband finished his very first marathon (thinking I am to be a golf and running widow now) he and Amy were both in pain, exhausted, exhilarated and starving. We ran ideas back and forth but it was Amy that came up with the winning one. A return to a Spanish tapas place we’d all been to and loved but never together, Dams les Landes. Good food, cool people, fun to watch the crowd but the thing that I remember, a fried prawn dish with a sauce that is still in my head. Something about it reminded me of soy but there was virtually no salty effect whatsoever, none. Driving me nuts still trying to figure out what was happening there, I mean other than utter deliciousness. I could have eaten ten of those crispy skinned, submitting flesh prawns and I would drink that sauce on its own, but thankfully there was a couple bottles of Cotes de Provence pink to lavishly revive my palate before I went in for another crunchy, briny, umami rich plunge. 

Laundromat Snacks & Badoit – the day after Amy and her husband left I was feeling sort of sad but we needed to get some laundry done, (travelling for a month is a bitch as far as packing goes) so with a slightly heavy heart I followed the hubby to the local laundromat to help babysit our clothes. We had considered leaving the wash (takes for-ever in France) and going for a bite to eat, and although everyone, and I mean everyone, left their wash going and went to do other things, I sort of American freaked out and thought we had best not leave half our months’ worth of clothing to go stuff our faces. 

A comprise was made and I sat with the sloshing crunderpants while my husband trotted off to the market across the way to see what kind of snacks he could find. When it comes to food finding I tend to be the one who can sniff something cool to feast on so I was concerned as to what he might come up with. I was sort of right. He first came back with kumquats and a basket of tiny berries on a vine that looked almost like thin skinned cranberries, squishy ones. Nope. Sent back he returned with a waxy bag, one that smelled exactly like what I wanted. Somewhere in that French market he found, crispy eggrolls, shrimp dumplings and achingly tender Cantonese fried rice. There we stood, missing our friends, washing our clothes, longing a bit for home and we found it together, standing in front of sloshing washing machines eating out of and from plastic and washing it down with bubbly water. Stupid maybe, but a moment I won’t and don’t ever want to forget.


So our wash done, bags packed, apartment cleaned up and ready for our departure the next morning we headed out for a last night, and a treat. A friend of mine very knowledgeable about Champagne and my love for it, told me there was a wine bar/shop in my area that I simply could not miss. Seeing as I was missing my girlie friend and all, and she and I fell for each other partly because of our shared love of the bubbly stuff, I figured it would be a fitting end to my final night in Paris, (well sort of).

The second we walked in the place I ached to know of its existence 10 days before. I don’t think, had we known of Dilettantes Maison de Champagne from day one, well I don’t think we would have ever left….or made it out of Paris with much money left in our bank accounts.

As with most shops in Paris the place was simply beautiful. Not grand or elaborate really as much as stunningly understated and hip. We were greeted by both lovely young ladies that were left working at 2 hours before closing. Both girls resembled the space, beautiful, hip, and underdone in a way that begs you to notice. Once we established we were interested in doing the terroir tasting we were led down a small staircase to a brick walled cave-like space lined with cases upon cases of Champagne. There was a long bar, high, feets swinging stools and a wicked cool map laying out the regions and villages of Champagne. I bellied up to the bar as it were and could not keep my head from swiveling as I drank in the smart displays that gave an altar of sorts to each of the growers being featured and represented. Our first wine was poured and our sweet host tried her best to explain in English what flavors we might find and why the Cote des Blancs was unique. Full glasses before us and she placed between us a slightly larger than Trivial Pursuit card with the name of the wine, a picture of the winemaker and a list of technical information on the wine. I was instantly elated. With the wine and with the idea I am likely to steal to use at The Wine Country back home. 

I sucked back the N.V. Vazart-Coquart Cuvee Camille, a noble Chardonnay based wine, one I’d not tasted but from a producer I have recently started swooning for, like I was taking down a wounded gazelle. The richness pressed so tight against the finesses in that wine that if felt like a luscious body that was tightly bound. Creamy, silky, deep swallow enticing. It was gone far too fast but it shan’t be forgotten….and looked for. If I can get that back in California you can bet your sweet ass it will show up at The Wine Country. 

Our blue-eyed host with the long legs and red lips returned, (yeah, they pour for you and leave you there to take your time with each wine, checking in every 20 minutes or so) and asked if we were ready for wine number two. Um yeah missy. Wine number two was from the Vallee de la Marne and while also mostly Chardonnay the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier was swinging a little more length. N.V. David Coutelas Cuvee Tradition, a wine I’d never smelled or tasted before is now part of my lifetime story as its aromatics are embedded deeply beneath my skin. Much more red fruit here, red fruit and roasted almonds but it was the floral thing that sunk like sharp teeth in the side of my neck and drew from me something I will be missing until I get to have it again. Damn.

Third wine poured, a wine from the Montagne de Reims, Tornay Cuvee Palais des Dames a 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend that showed much more restraint with some darker fruit and loads of cream. Pretty wine but not showing the length or vivacity the other two had so it didn’t captivate me. I started spinning my glass and looking around the room and that was when I heard a very American, likely even Californian, loud voice bellow, as he was still walking through the door upstairs, (there were video cameras in the cave so we could witness it) “Look I’m a very, very serious Champagne collector” his head tweaking just a little so see if the stunning twenty-somethings were listening, or better yet, willing to jump. “I favor grower Champagnes, especially ones from Ambonnay, Oger and Le Mesnil. You know, the good stuff” one of the girls stepping in to assist and he waves her off, momentarily, and shouts, “Just let me be, I’ll look around and let you know if I need anything”


I sat in the cave trying to keep myself focused on the wine but then he starts again. “Where are your wines from Ambonnay? It’s spelled a-m-b-o-n-n-a-y. You might not know it. There is a wine called Be-oh from there, it’s spelled, B-i-l-i-o-t” (it isn’t) and there is one called Laetitia, it was named for the daughter and now she, she’s making the wine! The woman is making the wine!” if I could have dissolved into my flute of Champagne I would have. He goes back to waving the ladies off to look about the tiny shop upstairs and I was literally holding my breath downstairs, hoping to god he didn’t come down to taste…I’d have had to fake Bulgarian just to not speak to that jackwad. Thankfully I don’t think he knew it was an option.

He mentioned, “grower Champagne” no fewer than 7 times in the 20-ish minutes he was there, one time asking them if they knew what a grower Champagne was and another asking about Roederer in the same breath. I cringed and shifted in my seat. Closed my eyes and tried to dive into the last puddle of wine in my glass as his, insanely loud bellow started in on the girls again. “You may not know this but all these growers used to sell their fruit to the larger firms like Moet and Clicquot, (guess Roederer doesn’t count) but a couple of years ago they started keeping the good fruit to make their own brands” my jaw dropping as I thought of two things, one, this guy could have been to one of my classes as I’ve told that story like 50 times and second, those poor chicks didn’t pay to come hear this bag of dicks talk or moreover teach them about Champagne….You know, the product they sell. Sigh... These French ladies working in a Champagne store in Paris, that showcases small producers, (had you really looked instead of pretended to between moments of enlightening the girls) need you to tell them about grower Champagne?! Nah, that wasn’t it. That guy needed them to listen to what he’d learned/read about Champagne while he bought a bottle of “something safe”. 

“Are you going to apologize to them or anything?” my husband asked as we made our way up the stairs to buy a bottle and close our tasting tab. “Hell no. They’ve heard enough from one expert today.”   We plunked a bottle of 2009 Vazart-Coquart on the counter, I bit my bottom lip, we paid our check and we made our way back to the apartment, a shared moment to be hopefully erased by a shared bottle. 

10 days of splendid bites with just one creepy sound byte, not too shabby.

Next up, my first impressions of Normandy.