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.

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.

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?

Les Halles – Lyon, France

Lyon

Lyon

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’?

Life in Burgundy – Bourgogne, France

On my last trip to France, I spent a few days at my cousin’s house in Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy.  It’s always a joy for me to visit her, because I get to experience country living at its best, surrounded by the best foods and wines in the world.  Her husband Patrick Bize is the 4th generation winemaker of Simon Bize et Fils, which for me means a 15 second walk down to their wine cellar for unlimited access to their wines, 24 hours a day.  My cousin, who is an excellent cook, made simple but hearty and delicious meals for me every day to complement their beautiful wines.  Here are some photos of the good life in wine country…

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Wine aging in the cellar

Wine aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

One of the first lunches that my cousin cooked for me was Poulet de Bresse baked in the oven with house white wine.  All foods and desserts that require wine are cooked only with their Bize wine.  The last time I visited them, she cooked an outstanding coq au vin with 2 bottles of their pinot noir.  Although it seems like such a luxury from my point of view, this is ordinary daily life for winemakers.  What a life!

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse, given an AOC status, is the most prized chicken in France.  Everything from rearing to quality of soil, from diet to slaughtering, is strictly regulated to maintain its famous gamey yet tender and delicate fatty flavor.

Poulet de Bresse

Poulet de Bresse

The Bresse chicken dish she made me was garnished with a simple cream and mustard grain sauce (using Dijon mustard, of course- Dijon is only about an hour drive away), accompanied with fava beans sautéed in butter and baguette from the boulangerie down the street.  I was lucky enough to score the tender chicken foie, while my cousin enjoyed the gizzard.

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

One afternoon my cousin dropped us off in the middle of the forest, telling us that we needed to forage for our dinner.  This forest was her secret place to pick wild asparagus, les asperges sauvages, which I had never even heard of until then.  In this dense, dark, cool and quiet forest, we diligently picked these long and thin wild asparagus stalks in silence.  They were quite abundant, and I was so excited to be able to forage for my own food.  It’s such a wonderful experience to be able to see where your food comes from, and to be able to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus

I blanched the asparagus in boiling salt water, then tossed them with spaghetti, sea salt and olive oil.  It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had.

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

One of their winemakers brought over a basket of freshly picked baby greens from his garden, which he dressed with a simple viniagrette.  We enjoyed these fresh vegetables with terrine de foie de lapin (rabbit liver terrine) and an award winning jambon persilles (ham with parsley) from Maison Raillard in Beaune.  Paired with never-ending supplies of their house wine, this al fresco family dinner was one of the most memorable meals in my life.

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Jambo persilles aved terrine de foie de lapin

Jambon persilles avec terrine de foie de lapin

On another evening, we gathered on the terrace to watch the sunset with a bottle of 1999 Moët et Chandon rosé and grougere, which is a type of cheese bread.  The inside of the bread was soft and doughy with a subtle and elegant cheese flavor.

Champagne toast with grujere

Champagne toast with grougere

Grujere cheese bread

Grougere cheese bread

My cousin made a delicious tuna, onion and tomato quiche one day.  Everything is made from scratch here, with great love and care.  Her dried cherry tart was also fantastic- freshly picked cherries that were sun dried on the terrace.

Tuna, tomato and onion tart

Tuna, tomato and onion quiche

Dried cherry tart

Dried cherry tart

For my last dinner, she pulled out the good stuff.  Burgundy escargot with garlic and butter, and house made duck leg confit.  The escargot were succulent and juicy, and the duck confit had perfectly crispy skin covering tender meat that fell right off the bones.

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

House made duck leg confit

House made duck leg confit

Other dishes that she made include asparagus soup and strawberries marinated in house red wine.  Oh, and don’t forget the cheeses.  Every meal concluded with the obligatory assortment of French cheeses.  My favorite was the Epoisse, perfectly stinky and incredibly creamy. My time in Savigny-les-Beaune was magical, beautiful and happy.  Everything was prepared with great care and detail.  Every night we would gather around the table as the kids talked about how their school day went and Patrick about his predictions for this year’s harvest.  With laughter abound, delicious food filling our content bellies, and Patrick returning every half hour with yet another bottle of wine, mealtime was always a place of love and warmth.  Although I enjoyed my dining experience in Paris, from local bistros to high end restaurants, the food that I had at my cousin’s house was truly priceless.   Oh, I miss them so much…

Cheese plate

Cheese plate

Paris, je t’aime!

Paris, wonderful city of lights, my favorite city in the whole world.  Some memorable photos from my recent trip….

Les Deux Magots

Coffee break at Les Deux Magots

Place de Concorde from the Jardin de Tuileries

Place de Concorde from the Jardin de Tuileries

White asparague at the Bastille farmer's market

White asparagus at the Bastille farmer's market

Notre Dame on a cloudy day

Notre Dame on a cloudy day

Seine river

Seine river

Notre Dame at dusk

Notre Dame at dusk

Escargots at Ma Bourgogne

Escargots at Ma Bourgogne

Place de Vosges

Place de Vosges

Bateau on the Seine river

Bateau on the Seine river

Evening stroll along the Seine river

Evening stroll along the Seine river

Deserted streets of Paris at 3am

Deserted streets of Paris at 3am

Clock at Musée d'Orsay

Clock at Musée d'Orsay

At the foot of the Tour Eiffel at 2am

At the foot of the Tour Eiffel at 2am

Oh Paris, my beautiful city, my city of love, you fill me with joy and happiness.  Je t’aime!!!

xoxo