Lake Lampy – France

When was the last time that you traveled, and where did you go?  What are your fondest memories from that trip?

When we reflect back on our travels, sometimes the memories that first come to mind or the ones that make us smile the most are not necessarily the ones most representative of that destination.  It’s usually not associated with the historical monuments, the world class museums, the ancient ruins or the 5 star hotels.  If it’s the first time that you are visiting a certain country, it’s almost obligatory to visit the famed sites and typical tourist attractions, but hardly do we ever really remember the details of these visits.  You can tell people that you’ve seen the Egyptian pyramids, London’s Big Ben and New York’s Times Square.  But when somebody asks you how your trip was, you’re more likely to go on and on about the romantic stroll through the park with the handsome boy you met in the train in Italy, how good that chicken skewer from the cheap food stall tasted after taking the wrong bus and getting lost in Ghana, or the charismatic matriarch of the small tapas bar in Madrid who chatted with you over several glasses of wine well after closing time.  Traveling is about those special moments that stay with you forever.  Sometimes, those moments are when we are simply doing nothing at all.

On the last full day of my recent trip to France, we did just that- nothing- and it was one of the highlights of the trip.  The entire trip was amazing, from the 3 Michelin star restaurants in Paris to working in the fields of my cousin’s vineyards in Burgundy, but by the time I got to my final destination Toulouse, my stomach was tired from eating extravagant food every day, and my body was tired from the repetitive cycles of packing and unpacking my suitcase.

We went to the local farmer’s market in the morning and bought fresh fruits and vegetables, charcuterie, bread and cheese.  We packed everything into my friend’s car and headed 80 km southeast toward Carcassonne to Lake Lampy, or Bassin du Lampy, in Aude.  The weather that day was perfect- sunny with some clouds, and a bit cool on the skin with no wind.  There were only a few other families on site that day, and it was quiet and peaceful.

We placed a big tablecloth on the soft green grass by the lake shore and opened up our picnic spread, which attracted a few hungry friends.  These 2 adorable dogs stayed with us for most of the afternoon, until we ran out of food.

We made a simple tuna salad with fresh farmer’s market vegetables, and dressed it with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  The Toulousian saucisson with baguette hit the spot.  Soft cow’s milk cheese, blue cheese and a goat cheese all complemented the chilled dry rosé wine that we brought from home.  Although it wasn’t extravagant by any means, this fresh and simple meal was exactly what I needed at the end of my long trip, and it tasted so good as I laid out on the picnic blanket and took in the breathtaking landscape of Lake Lampy.

We took a leisurely stroll around the perimeter of the lake and enjoyed the slightly damp coolness of the dense forests.  The lake was perfectly still and its surface was as smooth as glass, showing off an impressive reflection of the cloudy sky above. There was nobody else along our path, and it seemed as if this was our secret world, a magical utopia where we were safe from others.

Time seemed to stop as I dug my bare toes into the fresh cool grass and looked at the peaceful scenery.  I laid flat on my back with my canine companion snuggled up to me belly up, and we both reveled in peaceful nothingness as we watched the dense clouds slowly glide by.  I emptied my brain and focused on my breathing, inhaling deeply and slowly to benefit from the fresh clean air and enjoy the pure earthy aroma of my surroundings.  The only sounds aside from chirping birds and rustling trees were of us munching crispy carrots and gulping wine.  This…..this was one of those ‘moments’.

Random trivia:  Did you know that a dog‘s sense of smell is one of the keenest in nature, being able to smell up to 44 times better than man?  The bloodhound is the only animal whose evidence is admissible in an American court.

Georges- Toulouse, France

If you visit Toulouse, the ville rose, you don’t want to miss the breathtaking sunset view across the Garonne river.  The panoramic splash of colors across the expansive sky and its perfect reflection on the glassy water surface change almost every minute as the sun sets beyond the Pont St. Pierre and Pont des Catalans bridges.  After watching this romantic and magnificent sunset, we took a lazy stroll around the cobblestone backstreets of Place Saint-Pierre and sniffed our way to rue Blanchers.  Rue Blanchers is a small restaurant row of sorts with numerous cafés and restaurants offering international and local cuisine. 

Restaurant Georges was one of the first places we came upon and we knew immediately that it was the right place to dine.  We didn’t have to walk down the remaining stretch of rue Blanchers to check out our other options- the menu sounded tempting and the place was brimming with locals.  Georges’ menu represented Southwestern French regional cuisine with a modern twist, at reasonable prices.  Here you can order a Formule for 21 Euros (entrée + plat, plat + dessert, or 2 entrées + 1 dessert), or a Menu for 26 Euros (entrée + plat + dessert).

The atmosphere at Georges was friendly and casual, and happy diners filled the numerous tables that were tucked into every crevice of the small restaurant space.  Old paintings and antique photos adorned the brick exposed walls, and small stained glass lamps added to the rustic feel of the restaurant.   There was a tight narrow staircase that led to the downstairs cave and mini dining area that was stocked full of French wines.

Charlotte de Saint Jacques au coulis de crustacés – Molded shellfish coulis prepared in a cream sauce.  This dish was a modern twist on the traditional French dish of coquilles Saint Jacques, which is made with scallops in a white wine and mushroom cream sauce served on a coquille, or shell.  The soft and warm soufflé of delicious shellfish essence that stood proudly on a porcelain  scallop shell dish was just as good as any seared scallop I’ve ever had.

Forestière d’escargots en cassolette et son feuilleté à l’ail confit – Warm cassolette of escargots in a mushroom cream sauce accompanied by a delicious flaky slice of bread with garlic confit.   The cassolette was full of succulent meaty pieces of escargot that were even more delicious on top of the garlic bread, and the intense woodsy aroma of mushrooms filled the air.

Tartiflette au magret fumé- a hearty gratin of potatoes, cheese and smoked duck.  A tartiflette is a warm winter dish that originated in the Savoie region of the French Alps, and is particularly  popular in keeping skiiers warm at ski resorts.  Although a true tartiflette should be made with Reblochon cheese and smoky bacon, modern versions can be made with any type of melty cheese and other hearty meats.   Indeed, this tartiflette was very hearty and had enough power to keep a whole family warm during any winter chill.

Emincé de boeuf au coulis de foie gras – Beef sirloin tips served with a foie gras sauce.  These cuts of meat were slightly tough, though the rich savory foie gras sauce almost made up for it.

Tartare de saumon a la crème d’herbes fraîches – Salmon tartare tossed with herbs and cream, was quite delicious.  The minced cuts of salmon were fatty and marvelous, perfectly enhanced by the zing of fresh parsley and chives.

Le Régal des Capitouls: foie gras de canard mi-cuit, magrets sec et fumé, gesiers confits, saucisse au pot, mesclun de salade, confiture de figues, marrons, noix et sel guerande - this was a classic Toulouse dish that showcased all of the beautiful duck delicacies of the region.  Toulouse is particularly famous for its foie gras and sausages.  Cuts of foie gras mi-cuit, slices of smoked duck breast, gizzard confit and cuts of smoked sausages were served with preserved figs, chestnuts and walnuts.  I loved every tender and flavorful morself of duck on this amazing plate, especially the smoked gizzards that had more texture than the other cuts.  The more I chewed on the gizzards, the more these smokey flavors permeated my taste buds.

Fondant au chocolat - chocolate cake with a somewhat molten center was decadent. The exterior was ever so slightly flaky, adding a textural contrast to the silken interior.

Crème brûlée aux framboises fraîches - crème brûlée with whole raspberries inside was quite flavorful, and the four of us finished it very quickly.

Our dinner at Georges was a fantastic experience, and it was a perfect treat to succeed the amazing sunset that we saw over the Garonne river.  Gratifying rustic French cuisine served by honest caring hosts at Georges is an experience not be missed on your next trip to Toulouse.  Michel Sarran, with 2 Michelin stars, is perhaps the most famous restaurant in Toulouse, but I also recommend Georges if you and your wallet want to take a break and keep it casual and homey.

Georges

4 rue des Blanchers

31000 Toulouse, France

+33 05 34 44 95 92

Open 7 days a week

Lunch 12 to 2pm, Dinner 8-11:30pm

Random trivia:  Did you know that the scallop shell is regarded as a symbol of fertility?  That’s why many paintings of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility, also depict a scallop shell.  Botticelli’s famous painting in Firenze’s Uffizi gallery, The Birth of Venus, shows a beautiful and serene Venus emerging from the sea on a scallop shell.

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Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus' copied from Wikipedia

Toulouse, France

In the sunny southwest of France, close to the Pyrénées mountain range, lies the pink city of Toulouse.  Easily accessible by train or plane from Paris, Toulouse has been called the ville rose for its rose colored brick buildings in the historical center.  Being the fourth largest city in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseille, Toulouse is not only known for its universities, but also as homebase of the European aerospace industry.

The historical center of this quaint and lovely city is easy to explore on foot, although it’s more fun to explore by bicycle.  There are numerous bike rental stations conveniently scattered throughout the city so that pick up and drop off can be done at any of these stations. By swiping a credit card, one can rent these bikes for 1-2 Euros a day. On a recent trip to Toulouse, my friends and I took this bicycle tour of Toulouse, and it was one of the most fun activities that I had done in a long time.  The weather was sunny and the wind was low, and we set off on these two-wheelers through this charming pink city.

We weaved in and out through the narrow cobblestone streets lined with beautiful old buildings.  The first sight that we saw was the majestic Basilique St. Serrin, just down the street from my friend Olivier’s apartment.  It’s the largest Romanesque basilica in the western world, and the signature octagonal bell tower popped against the dramatic cloudy sky.

The Cathedrale St. Etienne has a unique exterior that looks like a mishmash of different architectural styles, since it was constructed by joining two incomplete churches.  Once inside, you can also appreciate the 2 different styles of Gothic architecture that are also structurally askew.

We bought delicious Indian chicken curry and tandoori chicken wraps to go, put them in our cute little baskets on the front of the bicycles, and headed to the serene Jardin des Plantes for a picnic.  On that Sunday afternoon the park was alive with smiling joggers, university students lost in their textbooks, lovers cuddling on their blanket and families enjoying their quality time playing games.  I love the feeling of grass and moist soil on my bare feet- it’s a good feeling to take off my shoes from time to time and really feel the earth under every part of the soles of my feet.  With the sun filtering through the green trees and caressing my face with its gentle warmth, the lullaby of laughing children in the distant background and a content belly full of good food, I drifted off into a quick postprandial snooze…

…but not for long, as we had a lot more pedaling to do.  The 150 mile long Canal du Midi is the oldest canal in Europe still in use, and has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.  It felt exhilarating to pedal along this picturesque canal that was beautifully lined with lush green trees and where people still live on crazy looking old boathouses. 

The Place du Capitol, the epicenter of Toulouse, is a place of public gathering.  One can sit at any of the numerous outdoor cafes to people watch against the background of the majestic town hall and opera house.  When we went there, there was a demonstration going on in one corner of the plaza, while street vendors tried to entice people with paintings and trinkets on the other end.

After we returned our rental bikes to one of the rental stations, we walked over to the Garonne river to watch the beautiful sunset.  As the sun disappeared behind the pristine bridges of Pont Saint- Pierre and Pont des Catalans, the expansive sky captivated us with an awe inspiring panorama of lights, patterns and colors.  We talked about lost loves and new loves, as we  sat on the banks of the Garonne and stared at the sky until it turned dark.

Naturally, this  full day adventure made us hungry.  What shall it be tonight?  Which Toulousian specialty shall we indulge in?  Perhaps the most typical dish that represents Toulouse is cassoulet, a rich slow-cooked bean stew with white haricot beans, duck confit and pork sausage.  This heartiness of this stew was almost intimidating, and I couldn’t finish it off.  We enjoyed our meal with a bottle of Cahors red wine, and finished the meal with a glass of Armagnac to round out our Toulousian culinary experience.  Armagnac, which is a French brandy similar to Cognac, is made exclusively in this area.

Toulouse, beautiful charming ville rose of southwest France- come discover this treasure on bicycle and enjoy the delicious flavors of the region.

Random trivia:  Legend has it that France’s King Henry IV (1553 – 1610) had Armagnac and garlic placed on his lips by his grandfather on the day he was born. He is said to “have drawn wisdom and strength for his whole life” from that experience.

Lyon, France

Lyon is the second largest metropolitan area in France after Paris, and as previously noted,  known as the French capital of gastronomy. In part due to famous chefs like Paul Bocuse who put this city on the culinary map, but also from the fact that Lyon is flanked by 2 of France’s famous wine-growing regions- the Beaujolais to the North, and Côtes du Rhône to the South.

IMG_6971Having the international headquarters of the Interpol, Lyon is also historically known as the silk capital of the world. The original medieval city of vieux Lyon is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its narrow passageways, or traboules, that pass through buildings and link the streets on either side.  Traboules were originally used by silk merchants, or canuts, to transport their products since the 4th century.  The Lyonnais also used them to get rapid access to the  Saône river for transportation of water.

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Inside a traboule

Now most of these traboules are private property, serving as entrances to apartments and offices.  Some looked like trash alleys for restaurants, and were not well kept.  We spent some time exploring the numerous traboules throughout vieux Lyon.  The doorway to some looked large, grand and heavily decorated, while others were very inconspicuous.  Most of the traboules were dark and mysterious, and served as a cool refuge from the blistering heat.

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Inconspicuous traboule entrance on the right

A short trip on the funiculaire took us up to the top of the Fourvière hill into the great Basilica, from where we enjoyed the breathtaking panoramic view of Lyon.  La Tour Métallique, the TV tower rising high above the hilltop, is a replica of the famous Eiffel Tower and looks gorgeous in the evening from across the river.

Click on the ‘View Images’ button on the bottom right to get a larger view of these photos of beautiful Lyon.

Lyon is a beautiful city with a lot of history and allure.  It’s not too far by TGV from Paris, and it’s worth the trip.  You can experience interesting architecture and art, stuff yourself silly at Les Halles or the bouchons, and take in the amazing view along the rivers before retreating to bed.  My time in Lyon was quite amazing and memorable, thanks to my gracious hosts Guillaume and Nathalie.

Random trivia:  Klaus Barbie, aka “The Butcher of Lyon”, was a famous Nazi leader who tortured and killed many during WW II, including members of the French Resistance.  In Lyon, he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, and eventually died in jail of leukemia.

La Cour des Lys – Meximieux, France

IMG_7433After a wonderful afternoon spent in Pérouges, we stopped by the neighboring town of Meximieux for dinner at La Cour des Lys.  The ground floor restaurant inside the hotel, which used to be a coaching inn,  has a lot of old world charm.  Flowery wallpaper, antique wooden cabinets and tables, and large wooden embroidered chairs with hefty arm rests inside the dimly lit dining room seemed almost a bit too stuffy for the creative food that came out of the kitchen.

The kitchen is now run by Chef Frédéric Navez, who used to work at the famous patisserie Troisgros.  Although you can order à la carte, there are a variety of set menu options here.  We all ordered the 38 Euro menu called “La Promenade des Plaisirs” with 1 appetizer, 1 main course, and delicacies from the cheese and dessert carts.  Indeed, our new adventure of pleasures was about to commence with a wonderful warm escargot cassoulet.

The first appetizer choice was my favorite dish of the evening.  The foie gras pâté with fig compote was just divine.  It was one of the best foie gras dishes I’ve ever had, and although I didn’t order this dish for my ‘pleasure menu’, I kept stealing some from my friend.  The incredibly flavorful, rich and smooth foie gras fumigated my whole mouth with its deep essence.

I ordered the Mosaïque de legumes, de lapin et de ris de veau parfumé au liseron d’eau, jus froid moutardé, a terrine of vegetables, rabbit meat and veal sweetbreads wrapped in water spinach with mustard sauce.  Despite its colorful and light appearance, the sweetbreads imparted a very hearty and robust taste to this dish.  It was a beautiful feast for the eyes and palate.

One of the main course choices was a filet of dorade.  Interestingly, this fish dish came with a cute little accessory- a live goldfish!

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As you can imagine, this goldfish became the main conversation piece of the evening.  We passed it around the table and each of us played with the little fellow.  Although my friend Gregory terrorized it with his fork, most of us played nice and even gave it a pet name.  I wonder what it thought of the big dorade filet sitting on the plate in front of it.  Gulp….

Most of us ordered the Volaille de Bresse (Chapon Bresson) et Royale de lard, sous une cloche de fumée, pomme purée soufflée a l’huile de truffes blanche. One of my previous blog entries about my trip to Burgundy featured the famous poultry from Bresse.  This dish used castrated Bresse chicken, served with an assorted mushroom sauce and presented in a very dramatic way under a cloak of smoke.  See the slideshow below for this theatrical presentation.

The chicken dish was accompanied with a foie gras, smoked bacon and egg purée inside an egg shell.  We had to sip this warm savory pudding through a straw.  I really enjoyed this side dish.  I mean, it’s sippable foie gras and bacon!  Very cool indeed.  Greedy Gregory smashed the perfectly trimmed eggshell to finish off the pudding.

The potato purée with white truffle oil was amazing.  I actually enjoyed the 2 side dishes more than the chicken itself, which was quite gamey and robust.

Les délices de la Bergerie:  we enjoyed numerous ‘delights’ from the cheese cart.  There were many that I had never tasted before, let alone even seen before.  The assortment of cheeses included all types made from sheep, cow and goat milk.

La découverte des Plaisirs Sucrés: My jaw dropped and my pupils dilated when I saw this alluring dessert cart.  As the title indicates, I was ready to discover these sweet pleasures.  My friend timidly asked the server, ‘How many desserts can we choose from?’.  To our joy, the reply was ‘As many as you want’.  Greedy Gregory asked ‘So we can try all of them if we wanted to?’.  The answer was still yes.  Marvelous.

So many to choose from, and so little stomach space left…

We each made our own little dessert plate.  Mine featured a mini baba au rhum, pistachio mousse, marinated pinapple in syrup, a bottle of rosemary and rose essence water, and a side of kiwi purée playfully painted in a treble clef.

Others had chocolate mousse, chocolate mint mousse, marinated prunes, fruit and custard tart, praline tart, macaroons, and creme brulée.  Their plates were garnished with rasperry and passion fruit purées.

We enjoyed our playful and creative meal with a wonderful bottle of 2007 Le Caveau Bugiste Bugey Manicle, a local white wine.  I never imagined that we would encounter such an inventive meal at this small historic restaurant.  From the goldfish to the smoke presentation, the dainty egg shell custard to the decadent dessert cart, this dining experience is one that I still talk about often.

La Cour des Lys

17 Rue De Lyon
Meximieux, Rhône-Alpes 01800
France

Tel: 0474610678

http://www.la-cour-des-lys.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that a pregnant goldfish is called a ‘twit’?

Pérouges, France

If you are ever in Lyon, I highly recommend taking a day trip to the village of Pérouges, only 35 km from Lyon in the Rhone Alps.  Said to be one of the most beautiful villages in France, it is a medieval walled town on a small hill overlooking the Ain River valley.  It’s a charming village that developed in the 14th century around the weaving industry.

Pérouges boasts some of the best preserved medieval buildings in France, and still has intact fortress walls.  It’s a pleasant stroll along the cobblestone streets through narrow alleys sandwiched between old stone houses.  People still live in these original Middle Age stone houses, and it almost seems like one can turn the corner and run into Snow White and the seven dwarves.

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The local specialty is a thin sugar crepe/cake called Galette du sucre or Galette de Pérouges. Place des Tilleuls is the centre of Pérouges with a 200 year old tree planted in commemoration of the French Revolution.   There are a few restaurants and bars in the center square for when you need to rest those weary feet after walking on the uneven cobblestone streets. Wear comfortable shoes when visiting this village.  My friend, who was wearing heels, was dying.

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The day that we went, there were very few tourists.  Only the sounds of chirping birds filled the air as we quietly immersed ourselves in this medieval world.

Random trivia:  Did you know that Pérouges was the background village for ‘The 3 Musketeers’ movie?

Cooking with friends – Lyon, France

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View across the Saône river from the market

Continuing on with my food adventures in Lyon, France…

On Saturday morning we decided to go shopping at the farmers market along the Saône river in vieux Lyon.  My friend Guillaume offered to cook lunch for us, and we were so excited to get a homecooked meal full of fresh seasonal vegetables after our heavy meat-centric dinner at Café des Fédérations the night before.  It was a beautiful sunny hot day with clear blue skies, and the walk along the river was breathtaking.  The outdoor market was teeming with energy and the vibrant bright colors of vegetables and flowers were bursting with happiness.  Here are some photos from the vieux Lyon Saturday farmers market:

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We were lucky enough to get fresh morel mushrooms, just at the end of their season.  I’ve never had the opportunity to cook with fresh morel mushrooms, so this was a new experience for me.  I’m used to the dried store-bought version.  These fresh morels were soft and spongy, light and airy, earthy and pungent, and just simply delightful.  Guillaume also bought fresh ris d’agneau, or lamb sweetbreads which I was extremely excited about.

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Fresh morel mushrooms

Guillaume’s kitchen is tiny.  There’s really only enough room for 1 person.  It’s barely even tall enough for him to be able to stand fully erect.  I offered to help, but there was only 1 1/2 cutting boards (the 1/2 board was the size of a passport) and a few pairing knives.  How can this tiny kitchen with hardly any fancy gadgets whip out this fancy meal that Guillaume was describing to me?  Frankly, I was a little worried.  However, as soon as I saw him clean the sweetbreads, prepare the morels, sauté the fingerling potatoes in butter, cut the artichokes down to the heart, and throw the peas in boiling water all within a 10 minute period, I knew I could sit back and relax.  It’s not about the kitchen, or the equipment, or the fancy gadgets, or the space.  It’s about the chef, his creativity and his passion.

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Cleaned morels and lamb sweetbreads waiting to be cooked

The deep earthy aroma of morels filled the apartment as he sautéed them with butter.  At the same time, he individually and carefully cooked each vegetable before putting them all together in the pot.  He knew exactly how each vegetable had to be prepared to enhance their natural sweetness and character, and he was not cutting any corners.

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Chef Guillaume multi-tasking in his small kitchen

Before we knew it, a beautiful pot of asparagus, artichokes, peas, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and garlic had been assembled on the tiny stovetop.  Meanwhile, he was finishing his morel sauce with cream and white wine from my cousin’s winery that I brought from Burgundy, and cooking it with the sweetbreads in the oven.

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Beautiful farmers market vegetable pot

The rest of the crew set the table and decanted a bottle of my cousin’s red wine, Simon Bize et Fils Aux Vergelesses.  We all proceeded to crowd around the small kitchen to watch the chef in action, all the while drooling and wagging our tails.

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Table is set, and wine is decanted

This ended up being one of the most memorable and delicious meals of my entire Europe trip.  There is just something so special about being invited into someone’s home and having a homecooked meal.  Shopping together at the market and seeing all of the fresh seasonal ingredients being transformed in front of my eyes in the kitchen also heightens the experience.   Everything was delicious, especially the lamb sweetbreads with morel mushrooms.

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Delicious market vegetable pot

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Succulent ris d'agneau with morel cream sauce

Of course we had the obligatory post-dinner cheese plate, again all selected by Guillaume at the cheese stand at the farmers market.  It included goat cheese with ashes and pepper, fresh goat cheese from goat’s milk that had just been milked the day before, and a Comté from the North Alps.

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After dinner farmers market cheese plate

Guillaume busted out his espuma gun for fresh whipped cream to complement the juicy strawberries.

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Succulent market strawberries

What a perfect weekend so far in Lyon, I thought, as I drifted away in a post-prandial snooze on the couch…

Random trivia:  Did you know that morel mushrooms, otherwise known as brain mushrooms, honeycomb mushrooms, or sponge mushrooms, are the official state mushrooms of Minnesota?