Saturday, October 31, 2009


Time for another market post before I head into shopping hell to buy myself an early birthday present with money I don't really have: my CD player has blown up and I'm in the middle of writing an article for the Oxford American and have a new batch of Fresh Air pieces due soon, so I can't allow that to happen.

The markets are now filling up with root vegetables that I can't identify. One guy even had a single-purpose stand of black turnips, complete with brochures. They're apparently famous -- or he wants them to be. But there were other turnips, some things that looked like carrots only were a pale yellow color, spheres with purple on the top, and carrots that looked like mutants, although I'm holding out for the carottes parisiens I've seen on occasion, which are spherical. Why? Because they look cool. And before long it'll be time for me to make my beef-and-carrot stew using a cut of beef called plat de côte, which GBD up in Paris hipped me to, and which I saw today: super cheap, but super good.

But that's all for the future. Right now, what I've got here is this:

Starting in the upper left-hand corner, a couple of apples called reinette de something, a heritage variety. I bought two kinds on Tuesday, one small and red, and one large and green, and the red ones almost destroyed my plastic lower teeth. I may get some more to make pork chops and apples with, but they also didn't see terribly blessed with flavor. The green ones were juicy and more easily bitten into. Below them, two kinds of pears, one with a red blush which are for eating out of hand (and one of which will be history by the time most of you read this), and the elongated ones, which I suspect will contribute to a salad with pear, walnuts, and the last of my Roqeufort sometime soon. For that, I've got two kinds of salad mixture, which has just started showing up. The one on the left was labelled "Japanese," while the other was just regular old mesclun. And, in front of the parsley, there's a butternut squash left over from Tuesday's market. I'm not at all sure what to do with this, but after the fiasco of the last orange squash I bought, I'm going to research this one thoroughly. (And yes, I know it makes great stuffing for ravioli, but that's a two-person job, and I'm missing the other person).

It's going to be harvest time soon on the balcony, I think. The jalapenos have come in in number, but they're really small:

I guess there'll be enough for one salsa, though, but I'm waiting for some of the smaller ones, like that guy on the right, to catch up. The serranos are, belatedly, starting to bloom, which is nice because they won't cross-fertilize with the jalapenos, but not so good because we're almost certain to get chile-killing weather before they're anything close to ready.

I'm thinking that there's simply not enough sun at my place for successful agriculture, although the summer heat is nice. Or maybe I have to have fewer than three plants per pot. I'm also going to try to start the seeds earlier next year, probably indoors, which should be fun, since I have no idea where I'll put them. Or maybe I just have a black thumb: the basil came up, produced two aromatic leaves, and turned brown. That was depressing.

Okay, time to gird the old loins and head out to the Odysseum with the other 50,000 people who'll be out shopping there. This will not be fun but it has to be done. Unlike last time, though, I'm taking the tram both ways this time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Languedoc Video

I've never posted a video before, but if this works, you'll get to see the region's new tourist video. No voice-over, no annoying music (well, almost no annoying music), and some durn good photography. There's very little Montpellier here, and nothing showing the old part, but when you see the blue tram, you'll be around the corner from my house.

Well, there ya go. Be sure and let me know before you come down so I can help you find a decent hotel!

Oh, and thanks to Peter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Our Lady Of The Boiling Oil

As I said, yesterday I went for a long walk to Celleneuve, and what had occasioned this was that the day before I'd gone on a much shorter walk to find out where this stream that is channelled through a part of town goes. Marie told me about a historical site on the river which I'm not sure I saw, and sent me to this site to read about it.

Well, I wasn't going to stop there. I started reading the Old Montpellier part of it alphabetically, and got down to the e's, e being for église, or church. As I'd thought, most of the churches here are 19th Century, even the Cathedral, which only has bits of the old building (most notably its towers), with the rest dating from the 1860s. They really didn't like Catholics here!

But one picture caught my eye, since the church in it was obviously very old. Aha! I said, I had to go seet this. And it was in Celleneuve. I'd been to Celleneuve before and it seemed like it took a very long time on the bus, but looking at the map, it didn't seem too much further than Castelneau, so off I went.

The church, for all that it's of imposing height, taller than anything around it, is still amazingly invisible. There's a parking garage named for it, so I knew to turn off the main road I'd come along at the right time, and I'd even seen a bit of it rising above the other buildings, but it took me a while to find it anyway, since the maze of ancient village streets surrounding it was so complicated. In the end, I turned a corner and there it was.

That's the tower jutting out into one street. The street to the left in the picture is narrow:

The fact that this makes it dark doesn't matter. The church has virtually no windows. I didn't get inside -- it's only open for three hours on the first Sunday of the month and this was the last Sunday of the month -- but I'd bet it's pretty gloomy in there. I tried a few more pictures, but there was no way to get the whole thing:

Just to get this much, I had to back up against a wall and hunker way down. That narrow window is some ways off the ground.

Walking back home, I reasoned that any church that well fortified had to have something to do with the Cathars, but I was wrong. Apparently the defense was there for when the Routiers hit town. These were bands of mercenaries in the employ of Henry II of England, who roved around the French countryside causing mayhem during the Hundred Years War. (For more on them, there's a Wikipedia article, of course). This fits: according to the entry on it on the historical website, the church was built in the 12th century as the Abbot of Aniane extended his influence into the area, but it was severely modified in the 14th century to defend the citizens, who could gather there when the Routiers were heading to town. According to the article, among the weapons used were large rocks and boiling oil.

At any rate, you should look at the historical website's page for a picture of the whole church, which must've been gotten from the telephone tower or maybe a balloon. I certainly couldn't have taken it from anywhere I was. The entire little neighborhood around it, though, seemed much more ancient than most of even the center of Montpellier, and I wondered what the housing in some of those ancient buildings was like. Probably awful, since the French mostly don't want to live in these old buildings.

They might, just barely, want to live in one of the old "folies," built in the 18th century by nobility eager to show off, however: I passed one, which seemed deserted, except for a bunch of construction equipment, which, according to the notice posted on the gate, had something to do with the new tramway, which is headed out that way. It's called Domaine de la Piscine, and given that a lot of wines have named beginning with "domaine" I'm glad they don't make it there because "piscine" means swimming pool.

On the way, back, I discovered a hiking trail which follows an 18th century aqueduct. Hmmm, might be time to see what that's about...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Things I Like

Ow. I took an 8-kilometer hike today (that's about five miles) to Celleneuve, an ancient village that's been engulfed by Montpellier, and I'll have some on that tomorrow, but along the way I snapped some photos of stuff I like.

Like street art (so much more fun than the Berlin variety, for the most part):

and lizards:

(Thanks for standing still, dude. Have a nice winter!)

And gigantic pine trees, even though their falling pine cones can dent your cranium real good:

It was a great day for a walk, and I know there aren't many more left this year.

Tomorrow, my somewhat anticlimactic goal.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Midmonth Miettes

The Sud de France people set up on the Comédie this weekend, and as you might expect, it was a celebration of fall. The two products most in evidence were ones I don't have much use for: chestnuts and honey. Guys roasting chestnuts over open fires drew large crowds, weirdly enough, although maybe I'm just blasé from having seen this so much in New York. It smells good, but I just don't like the taste of chestnuts. As for honey, I can't really think of anything I want to make that I could use it in.

Another big draw was a truck whose side opened up to show a small kitchen, where several chefs prepared meat dishes while an MC to the side made comments. I didn't have the patience to stand there and watch, and I'm not eating that much meat as it is, thanks to finances. There were a few wineries represented, although nothing too interesting, and a couple of olive producers. The biggest hit with me was the best Roquefort I've yet tasted, from a firm called Carles. Creamy, tangy, with just a hint of the barnyard in it, I regretted not having the cash to buy a wedge from M. Carles, who was handing out little slivers on pieces of bread. I also picked up guides to tourism and gastronomy in the Aude, which is Cathar castle country.

There was also a guy selling squash of various kinds, and I finally got to get a slice of this long, green-skinned squash with a bright orange interior, about five inches in diameter that I've been seeing around the markets. On the recommendation of some cooking experts, I coated it with olive oil, wrapped it in foil, and stuck it in the oven for an hour. It barely softened, but at least I know what it tastes like now, so I'll try to score another disc and try again. The variety was listed as Langue de Nice, and may be known in America as banana squash, but I'm not sure. The guy who was selling it was too surly to engage in conversation: I made a small grammatical error and he switched to bad English, refusing to change back, and sneered at me. I've only had that experience with Germans in the past; maybe he was a spy.

* * *

I frequently awaken in the middle of the night, thanks to Les Lunkheads downstairs coming in and firing up their stereo and throwing bottles at each other, although this has tapered off as the cool weather has come in because they've been keeping their windows closed. But one thing that helps me get back to sleep is a drone that happens in the early morning hours, a drone with a hissing beneath it. It's the sound of the streets being buffed, the streets and, of course, the vast expanse of the Comédie. Small vehicles with buffing brushes cover the square and the many pedestrianized streets, which are made out of polished limestone. As I fall asleep, I never fail to wonder that I live in a town where they polish the streets.

* * *

Since I've wanted to add some art coverage to this blog, I trooped up to the St. Anne church the other day, alerted by one of the free magazines we get in our mailboxes, an "independent information magazine" with the bizarre name Chicxulub, which, it turns out, is the name of the crater in Mexico where the meteorite which allegedly caused the extinction of the dinosaurs hit. They were among the sponsors of the first "Salon du dessin contemporain" there, and although I took a notebook along, I didn't see a thing to engage my interest. I also wondered what it was I'd gone to see. "Dessin," my dictionary confirms, means "drawing," and yet there wasn't a lot of drawing there. There were a bunch of canvases which looked like the kind produced for interior decorators, some of the usual shocking-to-be-shocking stuff, and one piece which impressed me: someone had arranged a bunch of matchheads in the wall in the shape of a phoenix, then lit them. The smoke stained the wall, and after it was all out, four more matchheads, red, were placed where the bird's eye would be. But for the most part, my guess is that this was an occasion for the local galleries to haul out the stuff they haven't been able to sell in order to entice prospective customers to shop under one roof. Oh, and for Habitat, which I understand Ikea is trying to unload, to hand out their new catalogue.

The other bit of art news is some photos by local news photographers being displayed on the Esplanade. Like the pretty-but-depressing Earth-from-above photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand which had been out there until recently, I thought there would be a larger show inside the Pavillion Populaire, but apparently not. I was going to write about the Arthus-Bertrand show, but it moved on before I got the chance. Suffice it to say that the captions got wearisome, each image of abstract beauty explained, but no matter how uplifting the image seemed to be, there was always a downer at the end about how the resource pictured is disappearing, harming the environment, or wasn't able to be saved. There are other ways to present this material that don't make the viewer want to slash his wrists afterwards.

* * *

But there's another new artwork up on the Esplanade, if only briefly.

That's right, folks! Montpellier now has its own Berlin Wall. Of course, those of us who have seen the real thing will realize, thanks to the street-buffing guy walking in front of this one, that this one's much shorter than the original. Also, the rounded top isn't made of a different material, and isn't even round all the way: it'd be easy to hop this wall. It's also thinner than the original:

But there's a good reason for that: apparently on November 9, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the German-German checkpoints between East and West Berlin, the city's going to hand out sledgehammers for people to knock this one down. I may wander out to see this, although I certainly heard enough chip-chipping from Mauerspechern 20 years ago (the souvenir market must be fed!) and I know this one's not made from asbestos-riddled concrete and reinforced by iron rods.

This little installation is the gift of the Maison du Heidelberg, which is the German cultural presence here. I'm not sure why there's not a Goethe-Institut, but maybe Montpellier doesn't rate high enough with the German culture bureaucracy for one. As someone who lived three blocks from the death strip on Bernauer Strasse for eleven years and then another year by Mauerpark, where the Wall crept up north, I find this sorta pathetic, but it'll probably be fun to knock down anyway.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fall Comes To The Market

The seasons certainly are changing. I missed last Saturday's market because I already had enough stuff in the house and with visitors in town I'd be eating out and not cooking. I still have two yellow tomatoes and a bag of green beans from last week, in fact, but there was other stuff I was out of, so here's part of the haul.

Up in the corner is the first of this year's broccoli, gotten from the hippie farmer, who was already packing up at noon, but obligingly unpacked his scale and cashbox to weigh and get paid for this single head of broccoli. The transaction attracted more customers, though, so I don't feel bad about hindering his departure.

Underneath are two red pears. Pears and apples, particularly the latter, are showing up in quantity, and I've always had a soft spot for pears, so I'm trying a bunch of different varieties. These red ones are, I think, going to wind up in a salad with some toasted nuts and some of that slab of Roquefort to their right.

Onions and potatoes are also more in evidence, and these onions in particular looked great. Plus, I was out. Above them, some of the tubular tomatoes that'll top a pizza later this week, and a green-and-red tomato thrown in as lagniappe by the tomatologist's assistant. Just below the parsley, you can see that the last eggplants are kind of funky, but these are actually in better shape than you'd think. And finally, more pears, these juicy as can be, although the skin is very rough, thick and tasteless. These wouldn't work in a salad, and are better out of hand. Two of these no longer exist, in fact, having disappeared very shortly after this photo was taken.

Not in the picture is a head of lettuce, and some Parmesan, which I got at the same cheese shop up the hill in the Halles as I got the Roquefort, and a loaf of bread from the second-best baker in France, whom I saw today pulling baguettes out of his coal-fired oven, since he'd opened his baking room to the street. My shopping is pretty much done for the week, so what remains is to enjoy what you see here.

Knocking Around The Zoo

The Extreme Walks continue. A week ago Sunday, I got it into my head to figure out where the Montpellier Zoo is. I'd heard it was free, and it appeared to be in a huge park to the north. I figured to myself that it was easy enough to walk north, so I took off. Remarkably, I went the right way, but I was actually, I see by the map, too far to the east to actually hit the Zoo, and I would have eventually come to Castelneau-le-Lez again. Fortunately, a road sign alerted me to that, and I went down a remarkable street called the Rue de Nazareth, which took me around the back of the huge military school which nests in the north end of the Beaux Arts district. This street is lined with ancient villas, some of which are attached to the military school, others of which are private. Their grandeur and solitude have been compromised by the encroachment of boxy apartment complexes, but it's still cool to see the big wall with the gate and barely glimpse the two-story stone house within, cushioned from the street by a stand of stately trees.

I then hit a larger street going off at a 90-degree angle and knew this was the road north. It climbed gently uphill, and at one point, I hit a long, narrow park called St. Odille Park, which was a nice relief from the sun, and filled with French Girl Scouts doing their thing. From there it was a brief walk to the University Paul Valérie (the arts and letters division of the main University), which I knew was near the Zoo. The road made a V, and there was a map, so I took the right-hand road, and, after passing more villas and apartment complexes, it got steeper and led to a large sports stadium which was crawling with security, for some reason. Just past that was the entrance to the Zoo, where, except for a building in which there's a mockup of an Amazonian rain-forest (which has its own webcam) and costs €6, the whole place is, indeed, free.

There were a couple of drawabacks, though. First, it was Sunday. On Sundays, every parent in the world who's got bored kids in the house has an idea: let's go to the zoo! Especially if it's free! And, since it's a "zoological park," there's loads of room for the kids to run around. This is good for parents, not so good for solo visitors. Second, I got there at feeding time. Lots of animals don't like to be gawked at while eating (this human included), so the keepers tend to leave the food in a private place and the animals go there to feed. I was told that the lemur exhibit was particularly cool, and I got to see a bunch of lemur butts as they ran into their enclosure to eat.

I wandered around some, and finally saw some large antelopes called addaxes back in an exhibit. Those, and the parrots rioting in a cage by the entrance, were the only animals I saw. But I was also critically aware of one thing: I was far from home, and needed to get back, and the only way I was sure of how to do that was to walk back. I hate walking back the way I came, though, but I was pretty sure that I hadn't come the easy way. By the time I was back at Paul Valéry, I saw signs to the center of town, so I just followed them. This led me a totally different way than I'd come, past a huge hospital complex, a small sports stadium, and a bar that specializes in beers of the world, where I'm going to head sometime soon for a beer which (unlike French beers) tastes like a beer. Then there were a bunch of unfamiliar buildings that were at least 100 years old, but I'd never seen before, a hill, and, next thing I knew, I was coming up one side of the Jardin des Plantes and found myself over on the northwest corner of the centre ville!

So what did I wind up doing the next Sunday? A couple of friends from Berlin (with whom I'd done a food blog when I lived there) were visiting, and they'd bought picnic supplies and wanted to eat outdoors, since the weather was great. I thought they meant in one of the parks near the house, but they wanted to go to...the Zoo! So this time we took the tram and the shuttle which runs to the Zoo from the St. Eloi tram stop, far less taxing on the feet, and instead wore ourselves out finding the picnic area at the "Asian swamp" display.

The Zoo, you see, is a park. You walk and walk down trails (10km worth), and then there'll be a fence. That will be an exhibit where, if you're lucky, you can see animals. Almost without exception, the animals at the Zoo are suited to life in a climate like the one here, and don't require a lot of water (so there are no hippos and no elephants). There's an emphasis on endangered species (which, of course, is a classic way for zoos to get funding), and nothing really showy. One exception to the dry-climate rule are the rhinos, who need a wallow:

But beyond that, you've got things like onagers (the ancestor of the modern donkey), various deer and antelopes, buffalo, a bear pit with gorgeous Siberian grey bears, and this guy, whose name I forgot to write down, but is the world's largest flying bird. (Oh, and speaking of water, we did find the Asian swamp picnic area, but the swamp itself was temporarily out of business, for some reason).

Since he's a couple of meters tall, I would love to see him take off. My guess he needs those long legs to achieve escape velocity.

The other thing about the Zoo being a park is that the trails wind around, and, being on top of a hill, every now and again, you'll get a great view. On our way from the bears to the lions, through a break in the trees, this beautiful village appeared, with Pic St. Loup looming behind it. The picture doesn't get the whole thing, but it just made me appreciate, once again, where I'm living.

Yup, for €1.60 you can take a bus to that view. Next task is to figure out what that village is. It, too, may be walkable from a bus stop. But that's for another day. The weather is cooling off, though, and while the sun shines, that makes it ideal for walking.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Europe's Best Burger

EDITED JULY 18, 2012: This has become one of the most popular of all the posts on this blog, so it behooves me to update it. Since I wrote this, the Vert Anglais has changed owners amidst some scurrilous rumors. I'm sorry the old owners have gone, and their chef departed long ago. Thus, I haven't been back, and I'd be surprised if any of the information about the Vert Anglais Burger below still holds. It might -- and there's no doubt that the publicity this place got upped the quality of burgers elsewhere in town. But until I try them again -- unlikely, but possible -- this judgement of Europe's Best Burger has now been suspended until further notice. Sorry!

* * *

Okay, let's admit it: nobody comes to Europe to eat hamburgers. There's simply too much European food around. But most of us Americans who live here miss them from time to time. And boy, can finding a decent one be a chore.

I first felt the craving a few months after moving to Berlin. I lost it almost immediately: a friend stopped by a place offering hamburgers and ordered one. The cook reached into the freezer, extracted a frozen patty, loaded it into a fryolater basket and dunked it in the hot grease.

Some years later, some friends opened a Tex-Mex restaurant, for which I consulted on the Tex end of the menu. I gave them my secret recipe for hamburgers, which involves a little something to be mixed into the meat. The chef, a Chilean (and, hence, a know-it-all), decided not to add the stuff to the meat, and, instead, sauteed it along side and put it on top. This doesn't work. (But he also decided my chicken-fried steak recipe was too simple, so he added enchilada sauce to the cream gravy, thereby ending the flood of transplanted Americans who were patronizing the place). They soon pulled the Tex part of the menu except for the burgers, which were the same frozen patties.

In fact, frozen patties were in use all over town until The Bird opened. Owned by transplanted New Yorkers, it made everything -- hamburgers, fries, sauces -- from scratch. Only the buns were problematic: for some reason, European hamburger buns dissolve before you're through eating the burger. The Bird compensated for this by using toasted English muffins, which were almost, but not quite, as bad.

But that's not a Bird burger atop this post. It's the Vert Anglais Burger, €12 worth of triumph over improbability. By this, I mean that it's served at a place owned by British people, who, collectively, have never figured out what a hamburger is, and cooked by a French chef, one of a people who, while quite good at le steack haché, have never thought the hamburger was worth figuring out.

And I am awarding it the prize of Europe's best burger because, although the Bird's chef has many wonderful variations, he's an American. The Vert Anglais Burger is an interpretation of an American cheeseburger by a chef who's aware of both American and French traditions and has fused them perfectly. For instance, that little dish with the orange sauce in it? That's nothing more or less than a sort of hommage to la sauce sécrete du MacDo. It bears some resemblance to rouille, the cayenne-infused mayonnaise served with fish soup in classic southern French cuisine, and some is also included on top of the burger, which needs no ketchup. Also atop the burger is a bit of lettuce and some extremely fresh tomato. And note that bun: the chef has discovered how to toast it to a point where it is structurally sound. This also has the salutary effect of toasting the sesame seeds to a nutty goodness.

The fries, I think, are frozen, as are most fries in Montpellier restaurants, but they are so well cooked that I have to say "I think." And the salad yesterday wasn't the best I've had with this dish, because it was based around soybean sprouts, but it was certainly good enough.

What is happening at the Vert Anglais is interesting: when I was virtually living there, between last November and this March, I was always there for lunchtime, which was mostly served upstairs because the outdoor patio was too cold to eat at. There was a decent number of diners, although the menu wasn't terribly interesting. In recent months, however, there's been a decided upgrade of the lunchtime menu, while holding the price steady. The wine-list has expanded slightly, and now includes one of the local masterpieces, a 2007 Ollier-Taillefer red AOC Côtes du Languedoc. I rarely eat a large lunch, so I haven't tried the seiches à la plancha (cuttlefish briefly cooked on a hot sheet of metal) or one of the daily specials, but I have reports from at least one professional chef that superb work is taking place in the kitchen of the Vert Anglais.

I'm happy to see this upgrade happen, and was pleasantly surprised to get a new business card which no longer said Bar Vert Anglais, but Brasserie Vert Anglais. It'll be nice if they can figure a way to offer a dinner selection, although with the perils of the restaurant business being what they are, being conservative about this is always the best course. Meanwhile, though, in the evening until 9, there are "tapas," which is to say various fried items and a charcuterie plate, and one main-dish: the Vert Anglais Burger.

If you're visiting Montpellier from the States, the Vert Anglais is a great place for a French lunch or before-dinner drinks. But for those whose stomachs get homesick, it's great to have a superb hamburger so close at hand.

Brasserie Vert Anglais, 3 place Castellanne, 34000 Montpellier; phone 04 67 66 03 03. Open for lunch noon-2:30pm Mon-Sat (special English brunch on Saturday), tapas and burgers 6pm-9pm Mon-Sat.
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