Gastronomic nemeses

I have cracked open suckling piglet skulls to eat its creamy brains and brainstem.  I have sipped on warm turtle blood, poured straight into a cup from its jugular.  I have chewed on live octopus legs, its powerful tentacles tightly gripping onto the insides of my cheeks.  I have drunk warm camel’s milk, freshly hand milked from the teats of a West African desert camel.  I have devoured whole sparrows, crunchy beak, skull, wings and all.  I have relished whale blubber, deliciously cold smoked in the dead of winter.  I have slurped creamy fish sperm sac, perfectly seasoned with a dash of ponzu.  I have noshed on charred armadillo flesh and mystery primate limbs.  Bugs, amphibians, mold, reproductive organs and appendages are no sweat for me.  In fact, every such unique culinary experience I have thoroughly enjoyed, licking my chops at the end of the meal.

My humanitarian work and travels have taken me all over the world, to countries some people may have heard of, but have no idea where to locate on the world map.  New types of animals, novel methods of cooking and interesting dining rituals have opened my eyes to a whole new way of appreciating food.  What may seem strange and bizarre to one can be a delicious afternoon snack in another country.  What may be perceived as animal cruelty in one place may be the only mode of survival and a long standing tradition with great historical significance in another.  Through sampling various types of foods all over the world, I have enjoyed learning about other cultures.

Opening your mind to trying local delicacies also means opening your heart to accepting the people and the customs of that particular culture, and for that reason I never turn down an exotic bite, no matter how strange or gory it may appear.  I will try anything twice, and as long as it tastes good, I will do it with an enthusiastic smile.  But even I, an adventurous eater with a strong stomach, have my Achilles heel- something that will bring me to my knees and leave me begging to be put out of my misery.  I have finally met my match, and my nemeses come in two forms: first, the French andouillette.

‘French, pork, tripe and sausage’ seem like a no-brainer. A culmination of all of my favorite things should automatically make it into my Top 10 favorites, but strangely enough, it is one of the most repulsive foods I have ever encountered.  A course grained bulky sausage stuffed with pork chitterlings, pepper, wine and onions, the andouillette is a French delicacy that dates back to 877 AD.  I’m still perplexed as to how I, an offal loving eater, cannot make peace with andouillette, but it is that distinct foul odor of dirty urinals that makes me shudder with disgust and defeat.  My first experience was in Paris as a teenager, completely sickened by this mound of innards that as a culinary icon holds a formal title: AAAAA, for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.  My second experience was 2 years ago in a well known bouchon in Lyon, one of the regions famous for andouillette (the other is Troyes).  Again, that distinct stench of locker room bathroom urine and feces made me wimper and recoil in fear, as I watched my dining partner roll his eyes in ecstasy as he savored every morsel of what he claimed was one of the best French inventions.

My other nemesis is a Japanese delicacy.  Funa zushi is a traditional and sacred Japanese dish, said to be the oldest sushi in history dating back 1200 years. Fresh female funa (Crucian carp) from Lake Biwa is scaled, then gutted through their gills to preserve the integrity of the body and the roe sack.  First it is cured in salt for 6 months, then rinsed and dried.  Then it is stacked inside a wooden barrel with cooked rice, allowed to ferment for up to 3 years under layers of salt, water and heavy stone weights until full maturation. As the mixture rots and ferments, it produces enough carbon dioxide to topple a 70 pound boulder off the top of the barrel.  The result is a well fermented piece of fish, rotted down to its bones and cartilage which have become soft enough to render the entire fish edible.  Some liken this extremely rare and valuable delicacy to Roquefort cheese.  I, an avid Roquefort fan, disagree.

Many years back, this seemingly harmless slice of fish with an impressive stuffing of bright orange roe, drove my body into sensory shock.  It wasn’t the initial sour smell or the doughy sticky consistency of rotting flesh that surprised me.  With the first bite, a caustic fume of ammonia-like gas shot straight through my palate into my eyes and my brain, precipitating massive tearing, temporary blindness and a strong gag reflex.  In the presence of important company, I forced myself to swallow and keep silent.

My second experience came, ironically, at the same restaurant with the same company- again, as I vow to try everything at least twice, I took a bite.  The funa zushi was just as horrible the second time around, its putrid smell and rotted flesh taking me back to anatomy class in medical school.  My dining partners, who were more accustomed to this highly prized delicacy, slurped up their sushi with joyful tears in their eyes as I held back my urge to hurl.

Andouillette and funa zushi have traumatized me for life, but I am determined to continue eating the world and not letting anything else come in the way of my appetite and my desire to connect with other cultures.  At least for now…until I’m faced with Cambodian fried tarantulas and decomposed walrus meat prized by the Inuit.

Where will your culinary adventures take you next?

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.

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?

Café des Fédérations – Lyon, France

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On my recent trip to France, I went to Lyon to visit my friend Guillaume, a fellow doctor, cook and gourmand.  It was my first time in Lyon and I was looking forward to the culinary adventures that he would take me on.  For our first dinner in Lyon, he chose Café des Fédérations, a most fitting and appropriate introduction to the gastronomic capital of France.

Café des Fédérations is one of, if not the most famous bouchon in Lyon.  A bouchon is a type of restaurant in Lyon that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine which is heavy on offals, sausages, pâtés and all things oozing with animal essence.  There’s an emphasis on hearty meat dishes, and it’s certainly not a place for vegetarians or the faint hearted (or the cholesterol plaque-hearted).

IMG_7037With sawdust on the floor, red and white checkered tablecloths and sausages hanging from the ceiling, this famous bouchon that has been in business for more than 80 years is casual, lively and festive.  Bouchons were born in the 17th and 18th centuries from the traditional inns that silk merchants stayed at while traveling through Lyon.  There are around 20 officially certified authentic bouchons in Lyon according to Les Authentiques Bouchons Lyonnais. All others are imitations and wanna-bes.  Meals in a real bouchon are cheap, the meals are hearty, and the people are loud, obtrusive and garish  (but they’ve got a heart of gold and are always wanting to share a laugh with you).  Our server’s tie says it all.

IMG_7011The 36 Euro prix fixe menu comes with tons of appetizers, cheese and desserts, as well as bottles of Macon and Côtes du Rhône wine, and about 8 choices of entrées.  Along for the ride at the adjacent table was Bill Buford, amateur chef and author of Heat, who was being filmed for a BBC documentary.  I was impressed that my travel partner Shirley recognized him right away.

We knew that we were in for a hearty experience when they placed a basket of freshly fried pork skins on our table with a bottle of Macon.  Pork cracklins and white wine…the proper way to start a bouchon meal.

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A large plate of the most beautiful and succulent saucisson de Lyon with cornichons came with a huge bowl of lentil salad, or caviar de la croix rousse.  It’s a lentil salad in a cream sauce that is named after a region in Lyon called La Croix Rousse, a hilltop neighborhood that was once populated by silk workers. As the name suggests, it’s a ‘poor man’s caviar’, although they use high quality French green lentils, or lentilles du Puy.

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Oeufs en meurette, a classic Burgundy dish, is poached egg in dark and concentrated red wine sauce.  The brown sauce was very rich and had the salty intense flavor of a broth that had been cooking on the stove for days.  The egg was perfectly poached, and its thick yellow yolk carefully enveloped the full-bodied sauce.

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Frisée aux croûtons et lardons, or salade Lyonnaise, is a classic Lyonnaise salad with frisée, bacon, croutons and eggs in a Dijon vinaigrette.  Little did I know that this was the only fresh vegetable dish we were going to get before a full-on meat fest bonanza.

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The terrine du chef that day was a terrine de canard, a wonderfully rich duck liver terrine that we lapped up very quickly with our bread.

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Poulet au vinaigre, or chicken cooked in vinegar sauce, couldn’t be more Lyonnaise.  Farm raised chicken braised in a vinegar, wine and tomato sauce that was really flavorful and nice.

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The joues de porc bourguignonnes , or pork jowl with red wine sauce, was a no-nonsense simple dish of meat, potatoes and gravy- nothing less, nothing more.  The sauce had a really basic robust pork-y flavor to it that I almost couldn’t handle.

IMG_7025Tête de veau with sauce ravigote was my favorite.  The braised calf’s head was extremely tender and luscious, and the tantalizing richness of the soft collagenous exterior was enhanced by the acidity and tartness of the ravigote sauce.  Ravigote is made with white wine vinegar, mustard, shallots, capers and herbs.  The word ravigoté means ‘reinvigorated’ or ‘freshened up’, and this sauce did just that.  In true bouchon style, this calf’s head came with small fine black facial hairs on the skin.

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Quenelle de brochet sauce nantua et ses écrevisses, pike quenelle with creamy crawfish sauce, is also a typical Lyonnaise dish.  Quenelles are made by combining panade (milk, butter, egg and flour mixture) with diced pike fish fillets, eggs and butter which is then molded into its characteristic torpedo shape and poached to a light fluff.

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Andouillette sauce moutarde is perhaps the most unique and intimidating of all Lyonnaise dishes.  You will either love it or hate it.  I’m not even sure if it’s an acquired taste, something that one can actually learn to love.  It’s pig tripe rolled up into a sausage shape, served with a grainy mustard sauce which isn’t powerful enough to mask the shockingly putrid smell of pig shit.  I am a huge fan and lover of offals (organ meats), and nicely fried or braised tripe is in my top 10 favorite foods of all time, but even I couldn’t stomach the tripe (ha ha).  It tasted and smelled like a dirty urinal, and I couldn’t handle more than a nibble.  As somebody who prides herself in being able to eat any part of an animal, this andouillette put me to shame.  My friend Gregory, on the other hand,  was loving every bite.

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Tarte aux pralines roses is a pink praline tart, much different from dark chocolate pralines that we are used to here in the US.  You can see pink praline desserts everywhere in Lyon, as I did in a praline stand in Les Halles.

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Gateau au chocolat with creamy custard sauce was rich and decadent.

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Raisin ice cream with berry sauce was delicious.

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We were also presented with a humongous cheese assortment, as if we could eat anymore after our carnivorous banquet.  The cheese plate included St. Marcellin, a beautiful creamy soft cheese, and cervelle de canut, a soft cheese paste of sorts with fromage blanc, white wine, garlic and herbs that literally translates to ‘silkworker’s brain’.  I think they should also be serving cheese crusted with aspirin and Lipitor.

My Lyonnaise bouchon experience at the lively Café des Fédérations was incredibly fun and memorable.  Although a lot of the meat dishes were a bit too heavy and hardcore for me, I loved the concept of no-nonsense country cooking that warms you to the bones.  The staff were all so friendly, I almost felt like they were family by the end of the night.  It’s not a graceful, dainty or upscale restaurant where you can find white linen tableclothes, let alone even a menu, but they’ll still treat you like royalty and make it an unforgettable evening.

With large full bellies bursting at the seams, we laughed and skipped our way back home along the beautiful Saône river.

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http://www.lesfedeslyon.com/

10, Rue du Major Martin
69001 Lyon, France
+33 4 78 28 26 00

Closed on Sundays, last seating for dinner at 9:30pm

Random trivia:  Did you know that the optical ‘lens’ is named after the food ‘lentil‘ because it has the same shape?

Les Halles – Lyon, France

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The next stop after Burgundy on my recent Europe trip was Lyon, known as the French capital of gastronomy.  Our culinary partner-in-crime Gregory gave us a quick introductory tour of Lyon, through the cobblestone streets of old town vieux Lyon and across the bridges over the Rhône and Saône rivers.  With the beautiful Notre Dame de Fourvière standing magestically above the mountains, and cafes and bouchons lining the riverside, Lyon was quite a sight to take in.

IMG_6970All that walking got us hungry- when can we start eating some food?  After all, we were in Lyon.  With only 2 hours to go until our dinner reservations, we couldn’t help but indulge in some quick but good eats.  Gregory knew just the place to satiate our needs, and took us straight to the marketplace Les Halles.

Les Halles is an amazing place stocked full of the best foods in the world.  Row after row of food stalls, seafood bars and restaurants throw temptation in your face from all angles.  The vegetables stalls have the freshest vegetables bursting with flavor and juice, and the charcuterie stalls with infinite selections of hanging saucissons and hams.  The fromageries boasted an assortment of cheeses that I’ve never encountered before in my life, and a macaroon shop offered about 30 different flavors (even white truffle, olive oil and foie gras flavors! ).  There was a pastry shop dedicated solely to pralines, and about 4 different oyster bars. In fact, this Les Halles in Lyon is named after famed French chef Paul Bocuse.  I wish we had a marketplace like this in Los Angeles.  If such a place existed, I would probably be there every day.

Seafood stall

Seafood stall

Macaroon stall

Macaroon stall

Praline store

Praline store

Patisserie

Patisserie

Vegetable stall

Vegetable stall

Fromagerie

Fromagerie

Charcuterie

Charcuterie

We decided to eat some oysters, and sat down at a table by the oyster bar at the Ecailler Cellerier.  Gregory had just been there earlier that day for oysters, so the patron recognized him right away.  The kind patron gave us a warm welcome, and joined us for some conversation and a white wine toast.

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler

Sharing a toast with the patron of Ecailler Cellerier

We tried 4 types of oysters: Marennes Fine de Claire, Isigny de Normandie, Speciales Gillardeau Number 3 and Speciales Gillardeau Number 4.  My favorite was the Gillardeau Number 3, a 3rd grade oyster harboured in the Marennes region of France from the legendary family-run oyster farm Gillardeau.  They were plump, rich, luxurious and divine, and truly some of the best oysters that I’ve ever tasted in my life.  So this is the famous Gillardeau oyster…now I see what all the fuss is about!  Some claim that these oysters are the best in the world, and many 3 Michelin star restaurants in France serve them.

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N3 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Speciales Gillardeau N4 oysters

Master oyster shucker

Master oyster shucker

Plate of oysters....so yummy

The most delicious and precious plate of oysters

Within the first 2 hours of arriving in Lyon, we were already at Les Halles having some of the best oysters in the world.  Les Halles here in Lyon is not a place to be missed.

Ah, Lyon, I love you already.  More exciting gastronomic adventures to come!

Random trivia:  Did you know that a baby oyster (larvae) is called a ‘spat’?