Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Two Walks

Walking to the 13th Century: Hard times at the moment. No work, and incredibly difficult to get paid for the work I've done. No fewer than three checks have gotten lost in the mail over the past couple of months.

What I usually do at times like these is take a long walk. Staying home staring at the screen, waiting for e-mails that never come is counterproductive, and exploring my immediate surroundings is good exercise and helps me understand where things are. Maybe next time I'm lucky enough to be able to afford renting a car I won't get lost for a couple of hours trying to get out of town!

Thus, noticing that the temperature was stuck on a number that's supposedly the optimum for human life and noticing further that the sun was shining, and even further noticing that it was Monday and the U.S. wouldn't be awake for business for at least four more hours, I grabbed my hat and walked out onto an almost deserted Esplanade. I got to the end and looked out over the view and noticed a steeple. Okay, I thought, I'll walk to the church and thereby sharpen my navigational abilities.

As if. What I did was plunge into the Beaux-Arts district, so named for the art school it surrounds. A nice enough 'hood, but not that interesting. No sign of a church, though. I walked towards the freeway and noticed I was on the Avenue St. Lazare. Okay, then, I decided, I must be looking for St. Lazare church, so I walked up the street, following signs for the cemetery. It was a nicely-shaded street, with nothing much going for it beyond that, with apartment complexes here and there. Suddenly, I came upon a modern, ugly, dirty-earth-toned building and was astonished to see the words Jardin de Sens on it. This kind of ratty concrete building holds Montpellier's most famous, Michelin-starred hotel-and-restaurant complex? Yup, it does. To be fair, from looking at the website, I'd guess that the place is designed as an enclosure, and that the inside, be it of the restaurant or the hotel, looks inward rather than out onto the Avenue St. Lazare. I have to say, the Pourcel brothers' menu looks fussy to me, and this place isn't at the top of the list of places I'd like to go if I had money. And, with Insensé, their restaurant in the Fabre Museum, and a wine-and-tapas place on the hill, I have other, less expensive ways to figure out what they're doing.

Anyway, it wasn't open for lunch and I wasn't hungry and I couldn't afford it, so I carried on down the avenue. Where was that church? There were signs for the graveyard, and eventually I came upon the graveyard extension, the graves all crowded together like at Père Lachaise in Paris, but all newish. A bit further down the street was the main event, and right on the corner, in a sconce in the wall, there was a bust of a woman. "Hélène d'Italie, Cetinje 8 Janvier 1873 - Montpellier 28 Novembre 1952." A queen? But where in Italy is Cetinje? I walked a bit further, and there was a gate in the wall, so I walked in. A huge graveyard, just as crowded as the extension but many times larger stretched before me, and an arrow pointed to my right, saying "Tomb of Helen." I walked down the path and a huge black marble wall to my right had an inscription about the city of Montpellier and a tomb of members of the French Resistance and the Helen of Italy Foundation, and, in fact, there was a large boxy tomb in front of the wall. At the end of the path was a very large granite tomb with the simple word ELENA on it. I'm still not clear on what part she played in the Resistance or why she died and was buried in Montpellier and her Wikipedia entry, in which she's named Elena of Montenegro (although she was married to the last Italian king, making her Queen of Italy until the monarchy was abolished), isn't much help.

I'd forgotten all about the church by now (although if I'd seen it -- or any church, for that matter -- I might have remembered it), and was noticing signs to Castelnau-le-Lez, one of Montpellier's close-in suburbs. I figured that if I were that close, I might as well check the place out, so I turned right at the end of the street, and noticed that I was still on the Avenue St. Lazare and I was still outside the cemetery walls. This is a big 'un. And, in a break in the fence, I looked down and saw another cool thing. Blocked off from the rest of the cemetery is another cemetery for Jews. This isn't so much anti-semitism as it is the fact that the main graveyard is likely consecrated Catholic land on which only Catholics in good standing could be buried. I stared at the Jewish names, and wished I could figure a way to get in, but there didn't seem to be one from where I was standing, so I kept walking. Now I find myself wondering if there's another ghetto for nonbelievers and bad guys attached to the St. Lazare, like the "freethinkers" graveyard I found in Berlin one day.

I walked alongside what became a highway for a little while, and then came, inevitably, to a traffic circle, one of whose arrows pointed up a small hill to "Castelnau-le-Lez, Église XIII siècle." Really? A 13th Century church? Okay, that was worth a hike. And it was:

Up a twisty little street is the church of St. John the Baptist. From its incredibly thick walls and tiny windows, as well as some very hard-to-read inscriptions above some stones set in the walls inside it, I think (but I'm not quite sure) that this was a fortified Cathar church, although I wasn't aware the Cathars were very strong this far east, although now that I've read the intro to the Wikipedia article on Catharism, I note that the crusade against them was initiated by the murder of one Pierre de Castelnau, who was from the dioscese of Montpellier. Anyway, it's a neat little church, very obviously still in use, and worth walking all the way around to catch the odd little square on the other side from this photo.

The rest of downtown has its share of old buildings, but not this old, and so I rejoined the traffic circle, and soon was on a familiar street which took me back into downtown Montpellier. The whole walk took two and a half hours, and it wasn't until I was almost back where I started that I saw that damn steeple again. A look at the map, which shows churches, hasn't clarified a thing. But it doesn't matter: St. John the Baptist was way cooler.

* * *

Walking to the 21st Century: Tuesday didn't seem like it was going to be any more fun than Monday had been, and I'd gotten an e-mail from Marie saying she'd just been to the big mall at the Odysseum and thought it was like the ones we had in America. They've extended the tramline, too, so that you can now take the tram straight to Ikea down there, and I began to wonder if the Odysseum, the huge, sprawling part municipal, part commercial blot on an obscure corner of the city, was also walkable.

It is, but it's far less fun. Whereas the walk to Castelnau was dotted with old villas decaying behind high gates (but still lived in) and the Lez river flowing at what looks like about a mile an hour, if that, and the graveyards and all, the Odysseum lies due east, and the route there takes you through, well, not much. There are apartment complexes, of course, some so new they haven't taken the plastic off the windows, and there's construction, and dust and vacant lots. Eventually, you come to an industrial park with offices in it, and then to -- of course -- a traffic circle. A lot of roads lead to the Odysseum, unsurprisingly, and there are a lot of cars to look out for. (Even so, I'd rather be on foot than on a bike).

It wasn't much of a walk -- just over an hour -- but the real foot-punishment started when I got there. Indeed: inbetween the previous structures that I'd seen when I went to Ikea at the beginning of the year and Ikea itself, a gigantic shopping mall had grown up. This wasn't at all like an American mall, though: for one thing, it's outdoors. It's loaded with outdoor eating places and access to the majority of the stores is via outdoor escalators. It's going to be hell trying to shop there when it starts to rain, and I found myself wondering if the designers had even thought about that.

The stores are mostly run-of-the-mill chain stores, many of which are in the mall around the corner from me. Europe's first Apple store, the opening of which was breathlessly related in the local press back in June was nowhere to be seen although there's a Darty store where, if you have to, you can buy a Mac system. There was a cooking-accessories store where they didn't have a pizza stone, a Levi's store, and an ice cream store that had lines in front of it.

But the attraction of this new complex is the Géant. That means giant, and is the name of a chain of what the French call "hypermarkets." It's a supermarket where you can buy a Samsung flat-screen TV for €599 or (as I did) a block of lard for €1.50 (biscuits on Sunday! Yay!). The place is huge, and instead of wearing out my feet hiking along the road, as I had on Monday, I wore myself out cruising the 15oo square meters of this joint. Once you get used to the presentation, you realize that it depends on sheer volume to intimidate you into buying. When you come upon an aisle that has a sales item represented by a display that's 24 units across and four down, it's like being yelled at. Of course, if the product is something you already wanted, it's like confronting an endless supply of it. In fact, once I got used to the size, I was impressed by how much wasn't there. There's a much better supply of pasta in the Inno around the corner from me, for instance, and it's 1/8 the size.

The weirdest part of the whole experience, though, was when I went to check out with my lard, a bottle of wine that looked interesting (and was), and a bottle of water to soothe my parched throat. There was a huge number of checkouts, all empty. I went up to one and the guy told me I couldn't check out there: I had to go to the scanner. I walked into a corral with scanning machines in it, and a woman came over to help me. I'd used one of these before in the HEB in Austin, but this one worked differently. First, I chose my language, so I thought I'd see what it was like in English. It welomed me to Géant, and then switched back to French. The woman looked nervously on as I scanned my three items, then as I fed the money to pay for them into the machine. I then noticed that, unlike at the HEB, there were, of course, no bags. So I had to go through the whole thing again to pay 11 cents for a bag. "Don't lose this," the woman said, pointing to the bar code the scanner had printed out. "It's for the gate." And it's true: you can't leave the corral without it. This whole thing is such a pain in the ass I don't think I'd shop at this place if it were in my back yard, which it isn't.

It's only been open since Saturday, though, and they were still stocking some of the shelves. And it's nice to know you can go to Ikea on the tram. But I don't think my next walk will be to the Odysseum, although it's true that the aquarium is pretty nice. And yes, I took the tram back.

I'm still waiting to hear about work, and I'm still not getting paid, though. Where should I walk next, I wonder...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Autumnal Equinox Miettes

Been a while since I did a market still life, so I thought I'd show what's going on as the summer comes to a close:

Not much different from the rest of the summer, with one difference: the grapes in the upper left hand corner of the board, which are everywhere. They have seeds, which I've learned to ignore instead of spitting them out except the odd huge hard one, but they have remarkably little taste, due to a lack of acid. I was really hoping for something better. Ah, well: there are now tons of pears, although they seem to be coming from Italy, and I'm keeping an eye open for them and for heirloom apple types, which seem to be coming in from Provence, which is nearer.

The rest of the bounty here is fixin's for ratatouille, which has been running through my brain recently because of a breakaway idea I had for it (to be reported if it works). That's what the long tomatoes are for; the regular ones are from the tomatologist, and wound up in salads, except for the two small ones, which were in a pizza with one of the eggplants, an experiment which worked okay, but needs a bit of fine-tuning. Unfortunately, my pizza stone shattered during the cooking of this, and I need to hit some building-supply stores here in search of untreated terra-cotta tiles. Or maybe start a pizza-stone company to sell them to the many fancy-cooking places.

The blobby looking thing with the multi-colored exterior is a pepper saucisson sec, which seems to have too much fat for just slicing and eating, like I usually do with them for a light lunch. I'm going to cube up a bunch of it and throw it in the scrambled eggs with crisp potato cubes tomorrow for breakfast and see if it's got any redeeming qualities at all.

This photo is from Tuesday's visit. Today I got more stuff -- another melon, some green beans, some lettuce, the usual -- and added a pound of these things:

They're called cocos at the market, but what they are are fresh white beans. After buying a can of white beans the other day to make pasta a la fagioli I felt like an idiot, with these things fresh in the market. But on the other hand, I didn't know how to cook them. Turns out, the ever-reliable French Letters did, and I refer you to her post for further info. Not sure quite what I'll do with them yet, but there's always pasta a la fagioli! (Known to barbarians as pastafazool, if it sounds familiar...)

* * *

One thing that's at the market and on the streets these days is not (to the best of my knowledge) edible: kittens. Is this the time of year that cats have kittens? Because there are these old women pushing boxes on wheels and selling baby animals. The first one I saw was just off the Comédie, and I thought there were little Davy Crockett hats on sticks and it was a performing kittens show until I got closer and noticed that the "hats" were furry mice on springs for the kittens to bat. These old ladies are kid magnets, unsurprisingly, so you get to see lots of French parents being importuned by lots of French kids to buy a kitten to take home. At the Arceaux market last Saturday there was another one, and she also had a couple of puppies. These ladies are apparently in the business, because the boxes are decorated with pictures of baby animals and clowns, which latter would keep me from adopting one, no matter how cute it was. I also wonder: is this a scam of some sort? Their sudden appearance on the scene just makes me wonder. But then, I'm the kind of guy who'd look at a kitten and see a scam, aren't I?

* * *

Mentioning the great meeting of Montpellier's associations a couple of weeks ago, I seemed to have missed one I would have joined in a heartbeat: yesterday I learned about the Right To Sleep Association, which is concerned about the growing amount of noise in the streets late at night. I'm okay with a certain amount of it, and living just behind the Comédie, I get to hear some late-night drunkenness, but my downstairs neighbors, Les Lunkheads, have, as I've noted, overstepped the boundaries numerous times. The worst came a couple of weeks ago, when a woman went utterly insane about 5am and was pushed out the door and into the street, where she continued to scream incomprehensibly. The landlord got told about this, and took some kind of action.

But what's odd about Les Lunkheads is that they're not, as you'd guess, 20-somethings. "People into their mid-30s are acting like this," my Right To Sleep informant (who must remain anonymous for fear of late-night reprisals). "It would be one thing if it were teenagers feeling their hormones, or encountering alcohol for the first time, but it seems like it's becoming a regular form of behavior. My wife and I were sitting watching a film and we had to turn it off because we couldn't hear the soundtrack, thanks to the bar down the street -- and we had our windows closed in the middle of the summer!" Having experienced his own chapter of Lunkheads, he and some similarly affected types had meetings with the city, but as yet no plan has been hatched and no action taken. By the time the city figures out what to do, we'll all be sleeping with our windows closed and the problem will abate until next spring, just you wait and see.

* * *

I'm trying to remember: what French entity has my age on file? The telephone company? The bank? The reason I ask is that last week, along with my New Yorker, I found another magazine in my mailbox: Notre Devenir. On the cover, a hot woman with salt-and-pepper hair has placed her hands over the eyes of a guy her age, who's clearly enjoying it. "Our development?" What was this? I looked at the small type below the logo: "Magazine of information about services and pre-planning for funerals." I note that this is issue number one, dated August. Somehow, this is a magazine I can't imagine working for, and I wonder how often it comes out. (Interestingly, I've discovered that there are people who subscribe to bridal magazines for years and years, even after they get married, so I guess anything's possible. Well, except for the dead renewing their subscriptions to this one.) I didn't even break the plastic on this, though, so I can't tell you about how to get into Père Lachaise in Paris, which was one of the articles featured on the cover.

Okay, that was bad enough. This morning's mail, however, had a special offer for Siemens hearing-aids. Although, given the number of ear-bud wearers I see around me, that may not be an age-specific campaign at all...

* * *

This is second-best:

When I first visited here, in 2005, I chanced upon a bakery with a plaque outside which said that the baker there had been selected as the second-best baker in France. The Vieux Four St-Anne, though, isn't the kind of place you go into casually. It's small, and you'd better know what you want because there's always a line. I was intimidated, and on all my visits here, never went in. Then, when I moved here, I was around the corner from a fantastic bakery, so when I wanted a sandwich, it was no problem just to walk a couple hundred feet for a fresh baguette.

But this morning, I decided it was time to stick my head in the place, since it was on my way home from the market. I was in the mood for a sandwich, and I'd get a baguette to cut in half for one. There were several different sizes available, including a huge one that, after it went stale, could be used for a baseball bat. Interestingly, too, the baguette here was 85 cents instead of the €1.20 at my corner bakery. I ordered one, and the woman asked "Bien cuite?" ("Well done?") Great idea! She disappeared into the back, stuffed it into a paper bag, and took my money and handed it to me. I almost dropped it: it was still hot. Not warm: hot.

I let it rest while I took care of some business at home, and then made my sandwich. It was perfect: the crust was sturdy and flaked all over the place (I still have to sweep the floor: I mean, it was flaky!) and the crumb was the perfect consistency, chewy but not even close to tough. There were some large holes in the crumb, too, indicating that the leaven was natural. There was a slightly sour flavor, balanced with some sweetness. And I have the second half to eat with the mussels I picked up for dinner, too.

While I idly wonder who walked off with the plaque for best in '04 (the sign has long been taken down), I have to say, second best is good enough for me. And there's all those mini-pizzas and other pastries to check out...

Le Vieux Four St-Anne, 10, rue Eugène Lisbonne, 34000 Montpellier. Phone: 04 67 84 45 58.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Let's Eat

As I mentioned yesterday, my friend Brett was in town over the weekend, and, since he's not insane, he was eager to try the local food. Since I'm not insane, either, I picked some places to eat and we went there. Thus, steel yourself for some descriptions of fine restaurants and terrible photography, courtesy of our iPhones.

* * *

Since I'd thought that Brett's wife Carole was going to be along, I'd carefully made sure that my favorite restaurant in Montpellier could accommodate her wheelchair. Nobody should miss a chance to eat at Le Chat Perché, and I'm happy to say that, if you give them advance warning, they'll reserve a table in the room you can roll into right off the street. You can also eat outdoors on the sidewalk in summer, as well as upstairs on the roof, which is absolutely not for wheelchairs.

I'd been here just recently with my sister, and several times in the past. The place is affordable, which is to say €21 for two courses, €26 for three, it has a wine-list after my own heart (two bottles from Mas de la Seranne), and the cooking itself straddles radical innovation and devotion to the local terroir. By the former I mean the moment when my sister's head snapped up and she said "Who on earth would have thought to put mint in mashed potatoes? But...what a good idea!" By the latter, I mean the market freshness of the menu.

Brett had contracted a mild case of vegetarianism, although he'd eat fish, which is good, because, well, the fish around here is good. Sad to say, but my taste was fading and disappeared early into this meal, so I can't say what the mashed potatoes were all about this time (except that they were pink), but I started with a fish soup with rouille -- traditional enough -- and Brett had a brick filled with goat cheese, a traditional Moroccan pastry (although I guess in America this would be called a beggar's purse) in line with the restaurant's exploration of North African ideas (that mint in the mashed potatoes again).

For the main course, Brett had a filet of salmon glazed with "fruits rouges," which I interpret as a sort of French weasel-phrase for "various berries." Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I opted for a local favorite I'd had there before, seiches a la plancha, a common enough dish of small cuttlefish, which have to be very carefully cooked so as not to turn into rubber. They're also usually accompanied by a persillade, a finely chopped combo of parsley, garlic, and salt, which somehow the Chat folks managed to make stick on the seiche body.

We had their house rosé with this meal, from Pic St. Loup, which I remember from my sister's visit as being pretty hearty for a rosé, without being overbearing or metallic. Their normal red is Chateau Puech Haut Les Grands Dévots, which cuvée I have seen a bottle of, and have been utterly unable to find in any wine store -- nor have I found anyone who's even heard of it. It really rocks if you don't have the dough for one of the other reds, which are amazing.

Brett opted for dessert, too, which was a bowl of grapes poached in muscat, a local sweet wine, with an apple sorbet on top. He was levitating shortly after starting it and became obsessed with buying grapes at the market the next morning.

Guess it was good. And, this being Le Chat Perché, I'd be amazed if it weren't.

Le Chat Perché, 10, rue du Collège Duvergier, 34000 Montpellier. Phone: 04 67 60 88 59. Open dinnertime daily.

* * *

Le Chat Perché is at the corner of the big square, the Place de la Chappelle Neuve, where my sister and I happened upon the Bistro Gourmand, and a few days later, the esimable French Letters went to that same square and had lunch at a different restaurant, and the glowing review made me want to try the place myself. So Saturday night, totally ignorant, we gallumphed up there and asked if there was a table for two. The waitress' eyes bulged and she asked if we'd reserved. We said no, and she ran inside. The manager came out. "You really do have to reserve," he said, "but there's a party of two who are late, and we're trying to reach them now." Eventually the waitress came out and shook her head. "Follow me," said the manager, and we were seated.

In Germany when you feel vaguely off, they call it a Kreislaufsproblem, a circulation problem. In France, it's a crise de foie, a liver crisis. In reality it could be anything from indigestion to terminal cancer, but I thought about the French phrase later that night. I have unnaturally low cholesterol, but I'm quite sure I drove it up to dangerous levels this night.

Not that I didn't enjoy every minute of it: my taste stayed with me all night, I'm happy to say, although I don't know why it did on Saturday and not on Friday or Sunday. I'm still working with the doctor's regime of pills and sprays, hoping that this polyp disappears.

I started with a bloc of foie gras terrine into which two thin slices of fig had been pushed. As for Brett, he had some concoction that was like a goat cheese/eggplant sandwich, with two slices of grilled eggplant enclosing a round of goat cheese.

Also visible are glasses of the house red, a very fine Pic St. Loup that had Brett suddenly making the terroir connection very strongly. (And see, I said the photos were terrible: that's the eggplant on top, the square of foie gras just under my fork).

Brett's course was a grilled filet of bar, or sea bass, on cooked fresh white beans, the "coco" beans that are all over the market at the moment. Me, I had what French Letters had: an entire (if small) Camembert cooked in the fireplace in its wooden box, accompanied by a bunch of spears of potato and two big, delicious chunks of Morteau sausage, which I'm going to have to go looking for. It was smokey and garlicky and I think it could well serve in Cajun dishes. Dipping pieces of potato in gooey Camembert and letting the whole thing sort of dissolve, then following it with a small slug of wine is a great way to forget that you have a liver. It doesn't look like we shot either of these, for some reason.

For dessert, Brett ordered peach soup with a scoop of peach ice cream.

(That's a physalia, the thing that looks like a badminton birdie).

Me, I had Roquefort with pears. The pears were a real disappointment: mushy and tasteless. The Roquefort was wonderful, but if you've been paying attention you've been checking out the cholesterol in my dinner here and may not be surprised to learn that I woke up in the middle of the night with a bit of a stomach ache. It passed, but I'll be more careful next time, promise.

Again, the tariff was reasonable, and the food was terriffic. That square is Gourmet Gulch, and I'm going back to check out a couple of the other restaurants some day. Soon, I hope. And if I go back to this place, I'll reserve, promise.

Le Grillardin, 3, place de la Chappelle Neuve, 34000 Montpellier, phone: 04 67 66 24 33. Open lunch and dinner. Reservations mandatory.

* * *

Sunday we mostly drove, but as I said, around 8 we found ourselves in Sète, and I became obsessed with having a plateau des coquillages, a mixed shellfish extravaganza. It had been ages since I'd last had a lobster, let alone a mess of crabmeat, and we found a place that would deliver, for €46, a pile of shrimp, mussels, oysters, sea snails (boulots), langoustines, and a crab and a lobster. What can you say? If the fish is fresh -- and this was -- there's not much to do but eat it. The local oysters are mostly salty, and lack any subtlety, but the mussels were good and the shrimp -- obviously pre-frozen -- were, too. Freezing hadn't helped the langoustines, which were dry, but the boulots were fat and juicy, and the crab had a lot of meat on it. Not so the rather skinny lobsters, but I really wasn't expecting a Maine special here, not at this price. A bottle of plain-vanilla Picpoul de Pinet, a light, refreshing, uncomplicated white that seems perfect with those local oysters and is inexpensive. One downside of the whole thing was that the ice melted rather quickly, and some of the shellfish got waterlogged. The crab and lobster claws squirted out loads of water, too, making me think they'd been prepared sloppily. But hey, mostly it was flavorful and there was a lot of it.

Here's lookin' atcha:

Restaurant le Grand Bleu, 16, Quai General Durand, 34200 Sète, Tel: 04 67 46 06 12.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Get Outta Town

Over the past few days, I've had the great good fortune to have had a visit from my friend Brett, who used to be a lawyer, then a journalism teacher, and has now finally embraced poverty as a freelance writer. He lives in Portland with his wife, but she was unable to visit because she lives in a motorized wheelchair and no trains between Barcelona (where they flew into) and Montpellier (where I live) exists. This, sadly, is a normal state of events: accessible travel in Europe is next to impossible to achieve, although Montpellier itself is remarkably well equipped for it.

At any rate, after showing him the market, taking him on a long trip through the city (including the Jardin des Plantes, which I mentally kicked myself for not having visited all year -- not so much for the flowers and all but for the lizards), and eating a couple of spectacular meals (about which more later), we rented a car for Sunday and decided to get the hell out of town. A good decision it turned out to be, too: the threatened rain this weekend mostly never happened, except for a few late-night storms, and it was cool and sunny all day.

The trip, however, got off to a very bad start. I picked up the car at the train station, just a few minutes' walk from my house, at 12:30, a half-hour after it opened. So far so good. to get out of town? I had, as a first destination, Aniane, which I've been itching to visit since I got here. It's only about 30 miles out of town, and is the home of the olive oil I use, as well as the amazing winery Mas de la Seranne, a tasting of which we stumbled into on Saturday as we passed the Wine Museum on St. Guilhem. Once he tasted the wine, Brett was all for going there. I figured after that, we'd hit the Devil's Bridge, then St. Guilhem le Désert, which was probably not going to be overwhelmed by tourists at this time of year. After that, we'd check the time and freestyle.

Now, I had a large-resolution Michelin map (339, Gard, Hérault, 1 cm = 1.5 km), so it shouldn't have been terribly hard to do this. We hit some construction, however, on rue Gambetta and were diverted. After that, things went horribly wrong. Here's the deal: in France, you follow signs to places that are approximately in the direction you want to go. Our two big choices were Sète or someplace called Millau. Sète was obviously wrong: south where we wanted to go north. But Brett couldn't find Millau on the map and I'd never heard of it. No biggie, I thought; we'd try to head north and eventually we'd have to see a sign to Gignac or maybe Lodève, which were in the general direction we wanted to go.

For two and a half hours we cruised from one awful suburb to another, following signs that dumped us at stadiums, dead ends, the airport, and, eventually, back into Montpellier. I'd think we were making progress and there'd be a tram or city bus. On the one hand, it's good to know that public transportation goes as far afield as it does. On the other hand, we wanted to get the hell out of town. Somehow, we blundered onto a traffic circle that spun us onto the correct road (there are tens of thousands of traffic circles in this country) and in 15 minutes of freeway travel, I was turning off for Aniane. I was so relieved that I forgot to follow the sign to the place where they made olive oil, olives, and cornichons (which, it being Sunday, was probably closed anyway), and drove into Aniane, what there is of it. No sign pointing to Mas de la Seranne presented itself, though, and, like I said, it was Sunday. I'd figured to spend a little time bumming around Aniane looking for the winery, but we'd lost so much time -- and there was so little chance it was open -- that I just pointed the car toward the bridge.

I'd last visited the Pont du Diable and St-Guilhem le Désert a little more than four years ago, and the latter, where we stopped, was a tourist nightmare, with a parking lot jammed with cars and pedestrians and tourists clogging the streets, erasing its charm. To make matters worse, the church we wanted to visit was closed for several hours. But this time we stopped to check out the bridge, and found an ultra-modern tourist office/souvenir shop/café with a small but effective display explaining the bridge and the surrounding environment. There were also shuttles to St-Guilhem for free, thereby reducing the impact on the town itself. Both, incidentally, are UNESCO sites. The bridge was built to connect two monasteries which were important pilgrimage sites, and the devil enters in because the legend has it that the devil undid the monks' work every night until St. Guilhem met with him and told him he could have the first soul that crossed the bridge after it was finished. Satan liked that deal, and probably spent a lot of time wondering which pious monk he'd get in payment, but St. Guilhem sent a dog with a tin pan tied to its tail over the bridge first, and the devil, unhappy that he'd been bested, jumped into the river. It's a long ways down, and I suspect it hurt.

We decided not to go to St. Guilhem, however, and this was probably a good idea. Not only was this Sunday, but it was the Day of Patrimony, in which all of France has access to historical sites and, sometimes, ones which are rarely opened. If there was a day St. Guilhem would be packed out of season, this was probably it. Anyway, I wanted to drive a road I'd missed last time I was there, and I'm massively happy I did it.

Unsurprisingly, it climbed into the mountains. And climbed. The mountains were unlike any I'd seen. The steep inclines were grassed and treed, but at some point columns of rock appeared, all grouped together. This sort of gets the idea:

If you click that to enlarge it, the mountain on the right (which may be Rocher des Vierges, the rock of the virgins) is of the sort I'm talking about. Little did I know that the road would head towards it, and eventually we'd be high in a mountain pass called Col des Vents, which, according to this map, is some 880 meters above sea level (2887 and some feet). Up there, the granite (I guess they were granite) columns stuck out of the scrub, and trees were very short indeed. It was cold, unsurprisingly enough, and yet there were stone huts showing that shepherds used the area, and not far down the road was a town called La-Vaquerie-et-St.-Martin, whose name implies dairy farming. It was a spellbindingly beautiful drive, and there was virtually no other traffic.

The next destination was Lodève, about which I knew very little except that I'd never been there and it was in the neighborhood. Again, we lucked out: not that many people around, the gigantic cathedral was open but not terribly crowded, and it was well worth checking out, a magnificent space.

We wandered around town afterwards, went over the funky old bridge over the River Lorgue, which was peaceful at this time of year. A sign on a neighboring bridge alleged that the older bridge was an 18th century reconstruction of a Roman bridge (or perhaps I misunderstood), but all the other sources say it's medieval. Roman, though, is believable, only in that apparently Nero had a mint in this city at some point.

Now, if all had gone well at the beginning, we would have had a couple more hours before we had to head back, and who knows what else we could have seen. My camera's battery died in Lodève, however, and it was getting dark. After a coke to make sure I was alert enough for the highway, we decided to head straight down to the Mediterranean, with an eye towards getting some seafood in Sète, a seaport and (mostly) tourist town. Before long we were in Agde, and got on the beach road, where dunes on one side and the mighty Med on the other made sunset a wonderful experience, especially with the big, but unthreatening clouds turning deep pink at one point. A big serving of oysters, mussels, langoustines, shrimp, crab and lobster later, we got back in the car and, again, missed the way out of town, so we managed to climb up to a dead end in the highest part of Sète, where a giant cross looms over the town. If it had been day and if we hadn't really wanted to get back home, this would have been wonderful. As it was, when we finally retraced our steps, we saw a sign that was so badly lit that it was almost invisible pointing the way to Montpellier.

There was no problem getting back into town, I have to say, and I'm glad, because it was late. I just parked the car in the Comédie parking garage, where I noticed something amazingly high-tech: above each space is a small light. It's red if someone's in the space, green if not. A simple solution I've never seen in any other parking garage in the world. They do some things right here. Now, if they'd just make it easier to leave, because this was enough fun that I really, really want to do it again soon. Okay, who's going to visit next? (Persuaders, in the form of some restaurant reviews, to follow soon, I promise).

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I've just returned from a cultural manifestation I don't think I quite understand. In fact, I may have to live here a while before I really get it.

As the above image indicates, amidst Ricardo Bofill's hideously ugly, ironic neo-fascist architecture of Montpellier's Antigone neighborhood, today the associations gathered. In other words, today is the day of associations. Now, Marie told me that this was one of the things she most liked to do all year, something she looked forward to eagerly, but she was going to miss it because her granddaughter's getting christened today. I had no idea what this thing was, but hey, what else is there to do on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-September, anyway?

So I walked down there and took a look, and was pretty bowled over. Coming out of the Polygone mall, I hit a plaza that had been taken over by musical groups: choirs, music schools, dance groups, orchestras. Each one had a booth, and a bunch of girls dressed in cowboy hats, matching blouses and skirts, and cowboy boots were stepping to some loud pop music, American flags in the background. I never did figure this one out.

But, moving further into the melée, there was more culture: painting lessons, groups of painters, more dancers: there were African dance groups, Indian dance groups, Moroccan dance groups, flamenco dance groups, Brazilian dance groups...

And that was just the dance groups. As I pushed further, there were the friendship groups. The Jewish Association of Montpellier. Franco-Vietnamese, -Laotian, -Scottish, -Gabonais, -Spanish, -Bulgarian, -Australian, -Burkinan, -Cuban, -Columbian, and -I'm sure I've forgotten a dozen more friendship groups. There were language courses in Vietnamese, English, and Japanese. There was a group for boycotting Israel, another for being an au pair in America, another for Vietnamese cooking classes.

Pushing past a huge number of cowboy-hatted dancers all boxstepping to an old American folk song sung over a truly horrid electronic disco beat, who I later discovered were from the Crazy Dance association of country dancers, I found myself in the health section. This was huge, and covered every imaginable disease and condition. There were dozens of handicap-support groups, mental-health support groups, gay and lesbian and transgendered and HIV support groups, and at least a dozen stalls where I could have learned how to render first aid for a heart attack on a dummy. There was a truck offering mammograms, and another where you could donate blood.

Health gradually segued into hobbies and sports as the stands approached the huge municipal swimming pool, and drowning-victim rescue turned into spearfishing and scuba-diving. This was also where yoga and such could be found, with several stands offering information about sophrology, which is some sort of meditation system that seems to have only taken off in France. Pretty soon, we were onto more recognizable sports like American football, rugby (which is almost as popular as soccer here, and maybe more so), and tambourin, which I'd never seen before moving here. There were stamp collectors, coin collectors, model railroad enthusiasts, post card collectors, several chess clubs, and a large space for a Scrabble club, with the fanciest boards I'd ever seen.

By this time, I was almost at the river, so it was no surprise to see that boating clubs had set up in the water and were demonstrating.

Walking back, I found a few more areas, including religion, where a very intense young black woman stuck a pamphlet with the Gospel of John into my hand, along with a pamphlet about illuminating the world. There was a space marked Zen, with a small golden Buddha, a couple of cushions, no literature, and nobody in attendance.

I was dizzy: do French people join so many associations? I can't imagine something like this event in America or Germany. I was quite overwhelmed: I picked up the directory of associations for 2009, and it's 125 closely-printed, three-columned pages long. Not all the associations listed in it were down in Antigone, but that's not surprising. There's only so much space, after all.

And, interestingly enough, this week I made contact with an association that, as far as I can tell, wasn't at the Antigone today, the Association for the American Library. They've asked me to give a talk sometime later in this year or earlier next year, and, of course, I said I would. After all, who am I not to associate with the associations?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mid-September Miettes

It's been a while since I posted anything about the market, mostly because last week I was consumed with tomatoes and when I woke up on Tuesday, I realized I'd better use some of the stuff I still had laying around before I bought any more. But today I went to the market and got mugged by the realization that time is passing. Gone are the mountains of tomatoes, the heaps of shiny eggplants. Oh, you can still get tomatoes and eggplants there, and I suspect you'll be able to for some time to come, but not in the quantities I'd been used to. I also suspect the prices will go up as the supply goes down.

Instead, there's suddenly a flood of grapes, both green and purple, which is hardly a surprise because the wine-grapes, too, are probably about to get harvested. I should -- and probably will, on Tuesday -- get a bunch of these. I'm a bit prejudiced against them because my grandmother had a small arbor of Concord grapes outside her house, and, well, they weren't very good. Then, in Berlin, there was always a time of year when huge green grapes (with huge seeds) appeared on streetcorners, and they had very little taste, but were consumed enthusiastically nonetheless. Another thing that's appearing is squashes of various sorts, and I'm going to devote a bit of research to how to use them. One farmer today had a few small heads of cauliflower, and various sorts of onions, too, are showing up.

I'm enjoying the discipline of trying to buy all my vegetables at the market and let the seasons guide me in my cooking, which is why I felt kind of stupid returning today feeling a bit resentful that the market was "out of" what I wanted. I still have a ratatouille experiment I want to do, and I'll do it this week, I hope, but the way the nights are cooling off after midnight and the fact that taking a walk in the sunshine doesn't dehydrate me should be clues as to what's happening. As should the date on the calendar.

And I'm not sure if it's seasonal or not, but Montpellier is about to play host to a giant beekeeping and honey conference, Apimondia, which will include, among other things, a working beehive in the Esplanade not far from my house, so I'm hoping my jalapeños bloom (they're working on it) so that the bees can visit my balcony and I can wind up with some chiles!

* * *

As I was walking in town today, a guy came up to me and opened his fist and showed me three bottles of pills he was apparently trying to sell me. He talked so fast I didn't really get what he was trying to say, but it was pretty obvious what was going on. Less obvious, though, was exactly what was going on, although I'd gotten a clue yesterday. He was wearing a white pharmacist's coat, and the pills were candy. It was part of his bizutage.

The word, I'm told, translates as "hazing," and freshmen entering some of the professional schools (including pharmacy school) here participate in it. This explains the group of kids wearing black garbage bags, hitting each other in the face with "pies" made out of shaving cream on paper plates. It explains the group of young men wearing cardboard wings and makeup running up the street, loudly hawking pieces of scrap paper for only a euro each.

I'm really sorry my professor friend has disappeared, because I'd like to know some of the history behind this. With some of these schools dating back a thousand years, these traditions could very well be ancient, although I've never seen any documentation of garbage bags or shaving cream that old.

The sudden return of students, who are suddenly visible by the score, even when they're not doing bizutage, is another sign of the changing seasons, and I guess I welcome it. French students seem incapable of doing anything alone, so they hang out in clumps. In the supermarket, this is great: a line which may look long may, if analyzed, be simply a dozen students buying a couple of 24-packs of beer and some Coke Zero. So you just get in line behind them and you're outta there in no time.

* * *

Finally, a bit of t-shirt watch, before it gets too cold to wear them. The Inno store has apparently got a line of fashion items called Peace Process, which I find amusing, selling bags and t-shirts with Peace Process Needs You emblazoned on them. But the one I really like (don't these people ever find native speakers to check with?) reads I Am A Love Result. (Note: I have yet to see anyone wearing any of this stuff).

But the winner was a guy I saw this morning. You know those t-shirt lines the big brands use that look like rum labels or ads for shipping lines? Kind of a Jimmy Buffett vibe, with tropical stuff like palm trees, and the lettering kind of weathered, in an old typeface. Well, this t-shirt was one of those, but what it said made me wonder if it were sly propaganda or some idiot in China with absolutely no clue. It read Guantanamo Bay: Psychological Warfare.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I Say Tomato...

...but all these folks were saying "tomate." Ah, well, it's their country, after all.

And their festival, as well: the third annual Festival de la Tomate in Clapiers, a town just outside of Montpellier (and still part of its Agglomeration) which turned its municipal park over to a bunch of folks celebrating the fruit. There didn't seem to be any tomato farms in the vicinity, but no matter; the French enjoy celebrating food, and so a number of farmers loaded up their wares and set up, as well as a number of fancy-food suppliers and a bunch of folks with goods and services aimed at home gardeners.

I'd found out about this through Eric Pedebas, the "tomatologist" I mentioned recently, when I saw him at the Tuesday market. He wasn't there on Saturday, no doubt because he was getting ready to be, literally, the center of attention at the festival. He set up a table with examples of at least 100 varieties of tomatoes, and worked the crowd, explaining this and that, as he walked up and down what a friend of his who was helping called the "Boulevard of Tomatoes."

That's Eric himself in the khaki pants, knife in his right hand ready to cut a tomato open to show its mysteries. I have never seen so many different kinds of tomatoes in one place, and I suspect that if some method of preserving varieties which ripen earlier or later than this very moment could be devised, he could easily have had a table twice as long. The fruit comes in every imaginable shape.

Not to mention color and size and fanciful name:

Although the real monster tomatoes were mostly over at the farmers' for-sale stands.

And even these in the foreground of this shot aren't as big as some I've seen, which require two hands to pick up. I have the feeling these behemoths are still in the field and will show up in the next couple of weeks.

Elsewhere, there was a guy selling peppers, who seemed not to know a lot about the varieties he had. Although, to be fair, there's nothing like the chile culture of the U.S. in these parts, and he was pointing out his cayennes as being particularly hot -- which no chile-head in the States would buy. He did, however, have a colorful mixture.

I have to say I'm jealous: the jalapeño on my balcony has only just developed little nubs which I think will turn into flowers and the serrano shows no signs of doing anything of the sort.

There was a guy selling fig-infused balsamic vinegar and basil-infused olive oil from Italy at €20 for about 250ml, which was ridiculous, and another guy from the gorgeous village of Saint-Martin-de-Londres with varietal olive oils from Lucques, Verdale, and Picholine olives at €15 a liter. A great excuse to go back out there some day, and I plan to.

The big event, though, was the tomato tasting, sponsored by Slow Food's local chapter (or convivium, as they call them). Since my taste buds are still alive in the afternoon, I joined this free activity, with four slices of Eric Pedebas' tomatoes to taste. We were given a form to fill out, in which we noted color, odor, texture, taste (with several sub-heads), and persistence of taste in the mouth. In order, we got Carotina, which (unlike the photo in the link) was bright orange, with a strong odor, quite an acid taste, but a fast finish; Cornue des Andes, which I've been using on pizzas, thinking it was a San Marzano, which had the distinctive "horn" shape, very light odor, and a sweet, very light taste with almost no finish; the Green Zebra, one of those remarkable unripe-looking tomatoes with a good odor, crunchy texture and a well-balanced acid-and-herb taste; and a Noire de Crimée, which he was selling in large quantity (sorry, no pic on his website), and was green at the stem, going to a dark red that was almost black, bloody red inside, and an intense, fruity sweetness that lingered in the mouth.

Besides the tasting itself, what really surprised me were the participants: about half of them were over 45 -- no surprise there -- but the other half were under 14, and as deadly serious about what they were doing as the three Slow Food representatives. One fat Maghrebi girl, who was there with her mother, finally had to be told by her to go away and play, because her enthusiasm was distracting everyone. (She's going to grow up to open a restaurant where the food won't be all that good, but there'll be a lot of it, is my guess). But there were a number of boys and girls who talked among themselves, poring over the evaluation forms, and this really impressed me, although my initial surprise, I told myself, wasn't all that warranted because developing this degree of connoisseurship is very likely perceived as being as patriotic as being a good baseball player would be in the States.

Afterwards, I talked to the Slow Food folks, who were very friendly and happy to see a foreigner with so much interest in what they were doing. I'll have to see what the coming weeks bring in terms of finances (it costs to join, and, of course, to attend meals) and, just as important, the return of my sense of smell and taste, which is reliably fading out around 8:30 every night, although not quite as completely as before.

Afterwards, Marie, who had driven (and much thanks) and her friend Genviève and I explored downtown Clapiers, which has a church with a 14th century bit (which bit I couldn't tell) and, somewhere, a Roman house, but not much else, unless you count the confection, which I forgot to note the name of, which translates as "rabbit shit." Genviève noted that it's covered in chocolate, which, of course makes anything taste good.

Clapiers is only about 15 minutes' drive from the pickup place by the American Library where Marie got me, but it's not easily gotten to without a car. This is one of the maddening things about living here: you really do need a car if you're going to leave Montpellier, or else you need to go far enough away that you can get there by train. In the distant future, I hope to have figured out a way to get a French drivers license without having to pay €3000 for a training course so that I can use the city's rent-a-car program, but in the meanwhile, I'm just going to have to scour the web to find auto-rental companies with decent day-rates if I want to go out into the deep countryside. Which, based on events like this, I most certainly do.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Steak vs. Cheesesteak

Just had a flying visit from my sister, who arrived Monday at about 1:30 and left early this morning, and she was interested in seeing the market and checking out the local food (see, she really is related to me), so I was happy to oblige.

On Monday, we had lunch at the Bar Vert Anglais, whose new lunch menu and evening special I'm going to write about very soon, and Monday evening we dined at what must be my favorite restaurant here, a place I'm saving up to write about.

But yesterday, we ate at two places that couldn't be further apart -- both excellent.

Since I had a tourist in hand, one with very little time, I decided that it might be a good thing if we took the absolute silliest guided tour of Montpellier, Le Petit Train. This is, as you might suppose, a small engine which pulls a bunch of cars through the Centre Ville, while the passengers listen on headphones to a recorded commentary in one of eight languages. The English commentary is very badly translated, and the French woman delivering it has enough of an accent that she's hard to understand , while some of the time, the incredibly bombastic classical music in the background, which is on a loop, drowns her out. Still, it's something I wanted to do once, just to see what it was like.

We had time to kill, though, so we went looking for a sandwich, and walked down the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle in search of it. We wound up at Le Kiosque à Malice, which offered a number of different options, and I settled for the Sandwich Malice, described as ground beef and grilled onions, topped with cheese, with, as my two sauce options, harissa and mayonnaise. This turned out to be a belly-buster, well worth the €3.80 it cost, with a nice durable small baguette cut open on the top and jammed with the beef, then covered with a slab of cheese and toasted. I was about half-way through it when my sister, who lives in Philadelphia, remarked "That looks like a cheesesteak."

Now, I've been to Philly a lot, and had a lot of cheesesteaks there and no, actually, this isn't that much like one, but it's enough like one that it goes a long ways towards dispelling the stereotype of the French as people who consume delicate bits of this and that. This thing is a grease-bomb, but a really tasty grease-bomb: junk-food of the highest order. I won't be back any time soon, but not because the sandwich was bad. It'll be because that was an awful lot of grease, and that's just not my style. But as a guilty pleasure, you bet I'm happy to have found it.

Le Kiosque à Malice, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle (second from the end; I'm sure there's an address just as I'm sure there's a phone in there somewhere), open lunchtimes, Tues-Sat.

* * *

Somehow, I managed to digest the Malice and be hungry again six hours later. Don't ask me how I accomplished this, but I did. "This is the last night I can take you out for dinner," my sister reminded me, so I thought about what to do. There are a lot of restaurants around here I've been wanting to try, and I don't know if your brain works like this, but when someone says "let's go" I just freeze up. Where? So I figured a kind of random stroll around places where I'd seem some of these places made sense. We wandered all over the hill, looking at this and that, and I decided I didn't want to go anywhere I'd been before. Then it struck me: by the place we'd been the night before, there was a big square with what appeared to be outdoor tables for four or five restaurants. We'd just head over there.

Sure enough, there were competing menus on chalkboards in the street, but there were a couple of other places back away from the street, which also looked good. I only got as far as one called Bistrot Gourmand, an uninspiring name if ever there was one. But...something about the menu on the chalkboard was giving off good vibes.

The menu looked good, the wine selection was the area's greatest hits. And the price was definitely right. So we sat down.

The meal started with a bang. My sister had a cream of cucumber soup, cold, with mint in it and a few croutons floating around with a sort of dried tomato in the middle. It was good, but we both agreed that I totally scored with something described as tomato crumble with thyme ice cream. The French love what the British call "crumble," and we call either brown betty or cobbler, enough that they've just adopted the word. Chunks of crunchy pastry are mixed with the fruit and baked, essentially. So why not do it with savory ingredients, especially with the vast number of tomatoes in the market just now? And topping it off with a small scoop of barely sweet, thyme-flavored ice cream with a stick of fresh thyme standing straight up was pure inspiration. I was very happy that my taste, which was, as usual, fading in the evening, lasted that long, and long enough also to get a basic idea of the wine, a 2007 Domaine Henry Paradine from the Grès de Montpellier terroir in Saint-Georges-d'Orque, which was a bit tight at first, but eventually opened into its round, full-mouthed goodness.

I didn't see anything quite as adventurous on the main-dish menu, so I ordered an onglet, one of the dozens of words for steak, with pesto and home-made fries. The fries were just like I make them, and the pesto was too subtle for me to taste when the dish came. My sister oohed and aaahed over her carpaccio with shaved parmesan, though, and, although she offered me some, I had the feeling the offer wasn't 100% genuine. Not that, if my taste had been all the way on, I'd have turned her down.

Service was amazingly friendly, and exactly balanced between attentiveness and benign neglect. The atmosphere, in the square, with old limestone buildings looming over us and the chatter of happy diners at a half-dozen places' tables eating everything from flaming crème caramel to pizza to high-end stuff was a welcome relief from piped music. I'm not only going back to this place, I'm going to see what some of these other places are like, too.

Bistrot Gourmand, 7 place de la Chapelle Neuve, 34000 Montpellier, phone 04 67 66 08 09, open daily including Sunday from 10am til midnight.
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