The Best Thing I Ate in Corsica

12 06 2013

You might expect me to wax rhapsodic about the array of sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, or gush about the intensely flavorful charcuterie, or rave about the freshness of the just-caught fish, but no. I’m here to extol a pastry. (And if you think about it, is that really so surprising after all?)

Almond " matchsticks"

Upon entering Ajaccio’s Boulangerie Galéani (for no discernible reason the only bakery there mentioned in any of the guide books I read) on the first morning of my weekend there in late May, I was met with the sight of these tempting allumettes aux amandes. Sure, we picked up some of the supposedly great canistrelli (like a smallish scone or thick shortbread cookie, but barely sweet and extremely dry), and some awesome cheese tarts made with the local brocciu (fresh sheep’s cheese, similar in texture to ricotta), but the allumette was the star of the show.

Imagine a thick twist of  puff pastry, probably made with salted butter, dunked in sweet meringue and sprinkled with salted almonds, then baked until crisp and caramelized. Alternately flaky, tender, crunchy, sweet and salty, it was truly one of the most surprising things I’ve eaten in quite a while. We visited other bakeries during our stay, and sampled many delicious things – mostly on the savory end of the spectrum, now that I think about it: turnovers filled with cheese, onions, and Swiss chard, sausages wrapped in croissant dough – but never saw another allumette aux amandes. So my recommendation, if you’re ever in Ajaccio, is to visit the Boulangerie Galéani, skip the canistrelli (which were pretty unimpressive) and the bread (I didn’t see a single good baguette the whole time I was there), and load up on these sweet-and-salty delights.

Of course, the setting in which we ate this pastry could have something to do with it. After hiking up and around a gorgeous peninsula…

Up

…we sat down to a picnic lunch high on a cliff overlooking the Iles Sanguinaires…

sunshine and sea air...

 

…which probably made everything taste better.

On this day in 2008: Nick’s Provençal Eggplant - a delicious ragoût, which I’m excited to make once eggplant comes back into season…hopefully only a few more weeks now.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Eleven Things, Eleven Questions

8 05 2013

My dear – and now many-miles-distant – friend Melissa has tagged me with the Liebster Award, a fun, navel-gazing meme that’s been going around.

LiebsterAward

To start, I’m supposed to share 11 things about myself. I thought it would be interesting to think of eleven ways my life has changed since moving to Paris, so here we go:

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Beer Hall Eating in Köln

28 11 2011

A couple of weekends ago, Nick and I found ourselves in Cologne, Germany (Köln to the natives) for a concert.  Thanks to the Thalys high-speed train network, the trip from Paris was a short three hours, allowing us to spend the better part of two days eating and drinking our way through the city’s many beer halls.  We arrived in time for lunch, and after finding our hotel, headed straight for the Päffgen Hausbrauerei.

Paffgen brewery

The beers (Kölsch, and Kölsch alone) are brought around on deep trays with slots to hold the narrow glasses. The waiter keeps a tally of how many you’ve ordered on your coaster.

sauerbraten & potato dumplings

I had sauerbraten, a dish of braised beef in a sweet-and-sour sauce traditionally thickened with ground gingersnaps.  It came with potato dumplings and applesauce.  Classic.

bratwurst

Nick ordered the bratwurst, sold in lengths of three-quarters of a meter.  It was served with a tiny tureen of spicy mustard.

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Adventures in the Languedoc

25 07 2011

This post is not about food.  Mostly.  At least most of my vacation pictures don’t feature food, in a vast departure from my normal routine of photographing my meals and pretty much nothing else.  Not that we didn’t eat well during our week in the Languedoc.  Our first stop was Montpellier, where we stayed with a colleague of Nick’s.  He took us to Les Estivales, a weekly food-and-wine event in downtown Montpellier.  A glass and three 10cl pours of wine cost just four euros, and there were food stands up and down the main drag, selling everything from paella to aligot.  The three of us indulged in mussels, calamari, some skinny little sausages that looked like SlimJims but tasted way better, some tuna-filled African “empanadas” whose proper name I have forgotten, a trio of vegetable-laden tartines, and probably a few more things that got lost somewhere between the third and fourth tastes of wine.  The next day we lunched at a café on the beach, and after sunning ourselves most of the afternoon (don’t forget your sunscreen, kids!) we stopped to pick up an array of seafood and vegetables which we grilled on our host’s balcony.

The next day Nick and I headed south.  We stopped in Béziers for lunch, and were pleasantly surprised by Le P’tit Semard, a cute little restaurant featuring fresh seasonal products from Béziers’ main market, conveniently located across the street.  I say we were pleasantly surprised because when you arrive in an unfamiliar French town at 2pm on a Sunday, the chances of you finding something to eat, period, are slim.  That it would also be a worthwhile meal is almost too much to hope for, but we got lucky this time.

Beautiful, colorful stained glass in Béziers

After lunch we decided to take a stroll through the town, and stopped to take a look at the Madeleine church, originally built in the 10th century.  The architecture was definitely different from the Gothic style with its sturdy stone walls, square construction, and few small windows.  But these windows had some amazing colors.  Outside we read some of the history of the church, which was mostly horrible and bloody.  At one point, there was a massacre, the leader of which was quoted as saying, “Kill them all.  God will know his own.”

Beziers

Under semi-threatening skies we took the bridge out of town with the top down on our convertible (did I mention that we rented a convertible?  We did, and it was awesome.) but put it back up before hitting the main road, not wanting to get caught in a sudden rainstorm.

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Interlude: Saint-Malo

18 06 2011

I don’t know about you, but it seems like these days the weekends are even busier than the weekdays. While I enjoy having a full social calendar, sometimes I just want some time to sit and do nothing. Last night we had a last-minute cancellation, freeing up the evening to do some clean-out-the-fridge cooking (cheese raviolis in leftover tomato sauce, zucchini baked with breadcrumbs and jamòn iberico) and some good old lounging on the couch with a beer and a movie. It was just the kind of Friday night I needed after a hectic week.

A few weeks ago, Nick and I spent the weekend in Saint-Malo with a group of his colleagues.  It was a nice getaway, but there was a fair amount of running around – trying to make it to our lunch reservation on time, figuring out when the buses to Mont St. Michel were, coordinating schedules with 16 other people, and then there was my insistence on making pilgrimages to both of Jean-Yves Bordier’s shops.  I mean, why buy butter at the cheese shop when you can buy it at the butter shop?

Bordier cheese shop

Since the cheese shop was closer to our hotel, we went there first (following a little postprandial nap on the beach).

Goat cheeses at Bordier

Firm, mountain cheeses at Bordier

We were planning to have a little picnic on the train home the next day, and we were sharing with another couple, so we got to indulge and bought about seven different cheeses, including a Trois-Cornes d’Aunis, which I’d been dying to taste, and a Breton specialty cheese with seaweed in it, which tasted much better than it sounds.  We watched as the saleswomen lopped portions of fresh butter from the large slabs sitting on the marble and then used a special set of paddles to beat it into rustic rectangles before wrapping it up in waxed paper.  We didn’t buy any butter, though, because I really wanted to see the mothership butter shop, somewhere in the tangle of streets intramuros.  (The historic center of Saint-Malo is a walled medieval city, now filled with mostly touristy stuff, but there’s still plenty worth visiting.)

On our way there, we passed by the Larnicol pastry and chocolate shop.  And we couldn’t help but to stop.

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Borssó Bistro, Budapest

9 03 2011

Just as soon as I’d snapped the photos of the lángos we ate for lunch on our first full day in Budapest, Nick noted that my camera was flashing a low battery warning.  D’oh!  I took no more pictures for the rest of the day, and I left my camera in the hotel the next day.*  But the day after that, we woke up to see Budapest covered in a light dusting of snow, with a few tiny flakes fluttering through the air.  We had already planned to warm ourselves up in the sauna before heading out, and the weather only confirmed our decision.  Once we were warmed through, showered, and bundled up, we set out to explore Budapest’s answer to Père Lachaise: Kerepesi Temetó.  (That o is supposed to have two accents, but I can’t figure out how to make my keyboard type that.)

Gravestone with ivy

The cemetery was especially silent and still with the snow falling gently on the graves.  I was surprised at how far apart the plots were spaced, and at the sheer size of some of the monuments.  The biggest ones belonged to people who had streets or metro stops named after them, but beyond that, the names were unfamiliar.  I was also taken with how organic this cemetery felt.  Many of the graves had live plants incorporated into their design, and the trees, though bare, were plentiful.  I can only imagine this place in the summer – I’m sure there are flowers blooming everywhere.

We wandered through the cemetery for about an hour, enough time to chill us down to the bone.  A big, leisurely lunch was in order.  Borssó Bistro sounded like the right place for such a lunch.  Listed as “Hungarian with a hint of French influence” by our French guidebook, and as “French” by the restaurant guide I picked up at the Tourist information desk at the airport, we took a look at the menu and decided the former description was probably more accurate.

We sat down in the cozy, warm restaurant and noted the décor – it was  interesting to see the Hungarian interpretation of a French bistro, complete with tiled bar (where’s the zinc?), chalkboard menus (they got that one right), and faux-parquet floor.  I thought I might have had enough foie gras for one weekend, so I started with the paprika cream soup.

Paprika cream soup, Borssó Bistro

The bright color and mildly spicy flavor were immensely cheerful, and the roulade of roasted eggplant strips around a center of fresh goat cheese made this soup a substantial appetizer, perfect for warming a cold, hungry traveler like myself.

Speaking of substantial appetizers, Nick got what is probably the best preparation of foie gras I have ever seen:

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Central Market Hall, Budapest

2 03 2011

I could have entitled this post “Központi Vásárcsarnok,” but I was afraid that might have been a little off-putting.  To quote from my phrasebook, “Hungarian, or Magyar, is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian, but is utterly unlike the languages of the other main linguistic groups of Europe.”  No kidding.  What that means in real life is that if your main language experiences have been with, say, Romance or Germanic languages, none of the words in Hungarian will look even remotely familiar.  Which made the long weekend Nick and I recently spent in Budapest something of an adventure.

Budapest's Central Market Hall

Budapest was once two towns, Buda on the hilly West bank of the Danube River, and Pest on the flat East side.  We stayed in Pest, in the Józsefváros neighborhood, which seemed to have a pretty good dining scene as well as plenty of cool bars for later on.  There was a bit of trouble with the hotel we had originally booked, but since it resulted in a free upgrade to the Hotel Palazzo Zichy, we weren’t complaining.  The first night we dined in a nearby restaurant, Alföldi Kisvendéglö, which served inexpensive, old-school Hungarian classics like paprikás csirke (chicken paprikash – chicken braised in a paprika-laced gravy) and töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage).  The food was hearty and flavorful, though less than photogenic.  We washed it down with a bottle of Hungarian red wine, which was surprisingly good, especially considering the price – about $18 US.

Tiled market roof

The next morning, I was itching to check out the Central Market Hall, conveniently located only ten minutes’ walk from our hotel.  (I swear I didn’t plan it that way, I just got lucky.)  It’s an impressive building, with elaborate patterns in the bricks and a colorful tiled roof.  Inside, the market spans three levels.

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Worthwhile French Beers: La Véliocasse

1 02 2011

Saturday morning dawned, as many weekend days do in Paris, bright and sunny.  Despite the cold, Nick and I thought we’d take a day trip to one of the many small towns around Paris.  We like to do this from time to time, because it’s really amazing how short a train trip it takes to find yourself in what feels like a very small burg in the middle of nowhere.  Of course, by the time we had eaten breakfast and bundled ourselves up for a nice long walk in the country, the sky had gone completely overcast.  Not to be deterred, we hopped on the metro to the Gare St. Lazare and caught a train to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a town about half an hour’s train ride northwest of Paris.  It is located at the spot where the Seine and the Oise rivers meet, ans as such, was once a hub of river transport in Northern France.  Now most of its barges are being used as houseboats, but if you’re interested in that kind of thing, they have a whole museum dedicated to the barges.  It also happens to be twinned with Chimay, Belgium.  This post is about beer, I promise.

Our original plan had been to explore Conflans, then walk about four kilometers along the river to the next town, which we would also have a gander at, before heading back to Paris.  Well.  It turned out to be much colder and windier than we thought.  We walked into town from the train station, sat down on a bench on the riverfront to plan our route, then walked uphill to the Tour Montjoie, the remains of an 11th century castle.  We passed by the Saint Maclou church, built around the same time, but it was mostly covered in scaffolding and not much to look at.  The views over the Seine from the top of the hill were, though.  We made our way back down to the river via a series of almost hidden staircases, debating whether or not to go through with the 4K walk we had planned.  Cold and hunger were starting to set in when we spied a cozy-looking bar offering Belgian beers on tap and plates of sausage from the Aveyron.  The decision was not a difficult one.

We settled in with a couple of beers and a tasty sausage.  We noticed that in addition to the well-chosen tap beers, there were crates of bottled beers from England, Belgium, and France lining the walls.  A Frenchman and an Englishman walked in (I know it sounds like a bad joke) and we got to chatting.  In talking with them it came up that there is a brewery in a neighboring town which is open to visitors on weekends.  As luck would have it, the bar carried at least one of their beers, and that is how I got to taste La Véliocasse from the Brasserie du Vexin.

Bière du Vexin

La Véliocasse is a honeyed amber beer which won the gold medal at the Concours General Agricole de Paris in 2008, and silver in 2010.  It poured out a lovely amber color, its effervescence in the form of very many tiny bubbles which formed a good, thick head.  Aroma-wise, there was a lot going on with this beer.  I smelled toasted grains, Nick picked up on the fruity and grassy notes, while the Englishman thought it was floral and perfumey.  Upon tasting, the sweet, malty, caramelized flavors dominated, but not overly so.  La Véliocasse remains an eminently drinkable beer despite the rather high alcohol content – seven percent.  Strangely enough, the beer trails off at the end, leaving you waiting for the flavor punch alluded to in the nose.

Seeing as I’m always on the hunt for locally-made food products, beers are no exception.  I’m interested to take a trip to the brewery one of these days, and I’m definitely looking forward to returning to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine when the weather turns warm again.  I can just imagine sitting on the patio of that bar (whose name I irresponsibly neglected to note), sipping delicious beers and watching the boats go down the river.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Lisboa, Saturday: Castle, Rain, and Free Wine!

23 12 2010

Continued from here.

Following the band-bus ride, Nick and I slept like babies.  We awoke on Saturday morning to near-freezing temperatures, and gray skies.  I thought we left Paris?  No matter, It was time for more coffee and custard tarts.

Confeitaria Nacional

Founded in 1829, the Confeitaria Nacional is special not only for its vintage décor, but for the fact that they roast their own coffee.  It was ever so slightly more expensive than the other pastry shops we visited – coffee was 70 cents and our four-pastry breakfast with two coffees cost a little over five euros – but the quality was evident.  If I were to continue the rankings, I’d say these were the second-best pastéis de nata we ate, after Pastéis de Belém.

Custard tarts at Confeitaria Nacional

Nicely browned, flaky crust, creamy custard, and the cute, for-some-reason-makes-me-think-of-old-pharmacies surroundings made these tarts almost worth the extra 10 cents.

After breakfast we wanted to catch the famous tram 28 up the hill to the moorish Alfama district and the Castelo de São Jorge (st. George’s castle).  But when we finally found the right tram stop, it was already populated by more than a tram’s worth of tourists.  We waited a few minutes, then set off on foot, figuring that the uphill walk would warm us up as well as work off our breakfast.  It didn’t take too long before we arrived at the Sé Cathedral.

definitely NOT gothic

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Colored Tiles and Custard Tarts

19 12 2010

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here.  December is brutal on pastry chefs everywhere.  I figured out that my workday is a solid three hours longer during the holidays than it is in the summer, and lunch breaks are shorter or nonexistent. Naturally, when I come home at the end of the day I’m exhausted, and it often comes down to a choice between blogging or showering and eating dinner.  I don’t think anyone can blame me for choosing the latter.  That said, this is going to be a big post, and I hope it will make up for my absence.

I believe I mentioned that Nick and I took a weekend trip to Lisbon a few weeks ago.  We had a fantastic time, and it makes me wonder what took me so long to visit Portugal.

beautifully patterned tiles

I was struck immediately by how colorful the city is.  I took tons of pictures of the tile-covered and pastel-painted buildings, and I know Nick got at least twice as many.  I’ve put some of my favorites up in a Flickr set, which I invite you to browse.  Compared to the gray of Paris in winter, the sunshine and bright colors of Portugal were just what I needed.

tile-covered building

We flew in on a Thursday night, and after grabbing a cheap cab to our hotel, we whipped out our guidebook in search of a nearby restaurant.  Cervejaria Ribadouro turned out to be just across the street, and was a good introduction to typical Portuguese restaurants.  They had several tanks of live seafood in the front, with market prices by the kilo listed nearby.  In addition to the lobsters, crabs, and cod, the menu had a large selection of meats, most of which were pork.  Nick made up his mind to order the pork with clams as soon as he saw it, and we later learned that this is a very traditional pairing in Portuguese cuisine.  I had the black pork, which was juicy and flavorful.  We started with bread and a stuffed crab, and washed it all down with a couple of big, cheap beers.

The next morning, we began on a quest that would carry us through the weekend: eating as many custard tarts as possible.

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