Thursday, April 29, 2010


Good lord, look at my kitchen! There's all kinds of stuff in here I'd never buy: a bag of Cheerio-style cereal, various other snacks, and, in the fridge, some red currants. Ah, but there's a story.

My friend Brent, in Austin, is a lover of good food and wine, and also a guy who gets invited to various rock festivals around the world in the course of his work. Unsurprisingly, his wife Kristen would like to attend some of these, but there's the factor of their young son, who's 4 1/2. But when Brent got invited to this year's Printemps de Bourges, he figured this would be a good occasion for a family vacation. I urged him to come visit here after it was over, but he wasn't sure he could, for some reason. Then the volcano blew.

It was hard enough getting to Paris, because at the same time, there was a rail strike and the beginning of one of France's staggered spring school holidays. They managed to get there, though, and 24 hours later, Brent was in the Gare de Lyon buying tickets for Montpellier. He figured it couldn't be worse than Paris, and it was a damn sight cheaper.

So last week, I met them at the train station, got them to their hotel, and started showing them around. There was only one aspect of this I was dreading: the fact that we'd be getting some fairly spectacular meals that I wasn't going to be able to fully taste. (For those who don't know, I have a sinus condition which occasionally allows me to taste lunch, but shuts down around 4pm, effectively killing any taste sensations which involve the nose. This especially affects wine tasting, as you might imagine).

Until you're presented with one, you don't think about the boundless energy and insatiable curiosity of a child -- and the need to keep him interested and not whiny. I'd long noticed the playground in the Esplanade, with its music-themed constructions, and of course there's a carousel on the corner by my house, but there are loads of other things around here for kids. Probably the most important thing, though, is attitude. People here are okay with kids being kids. In Germany, there was always the disapproving glare, the muttered comment. No wonder German children look so unhappy. (And heaven help you in Germany if you're a mixed-race couple with kids...)

Our first meal was at Le Chat Perché, of course. It's the restaurant I take everyone to first, because it's such a great introduction to the food and wine of the region, and it's affordable. The weather had just started turning gorgeous, so we sat upstairs and got to watch the roof being rolled back. As always, too, I ordered a 2007 Mas de la Serranne Les Griottiers, the kind of big, complex red which always blows people away. It certainly got Brent's attention and suddenly he had a raging curiosity about the local wines. Because taste is so intertwined with memory, I can't remember exactly what else was on the table, although my dinner was a sort of deconstructed chicken cordon bleu, with a hefty breast filet sitting atop some melted Comté cheese and a slice of Serrano ham, flavors which come through faintly, but recognizably.

After a morning in Paris, a train-ride, and dinner, my friends were understandably exhausted, and we stopped by an alimentation génerale, one of the little after-hours markets, for a bottle of wine for them to finish in their hotel room. The guy sold it to us, but gestured and whispered that we should stick it under someone's shirt, quickly, with mutterings about the police. That's how I found out about Montpellier's new law against selling retail alcohol after 10pm, of which I'd been unaware, and which not only makes very little sense, but is going to imperil these little stores, which, as far as I've been able to make out, depend on beer and wine sales late at night for the majority of their business.

Nobody got busted, though, and the next day my friends took a tram down to the aquarium, an experience I recommend to children up to the age of 100. They're about to start enlarging it, although it's still by far the biggest one I've ever seen, as well as the most intelligently-presented. In a kind of welcome-to-France move (as if they hadn't already seen enough of those), the trams went on strike while they were hanging with the fish, which was unfortunate, because the aquarium's right on the tram line. Not finding a cab, they walked back into town, which, as I noted last year in one of my epic walk posts, is one of the dullest walks available here. Kristen and the kid pooped out, but Brent and I went (after calling for reservations: I'm not making that mistake again) to Le Grillardin in what I've now come to think of as Montpellier's Gourmet Gulch around the Place de la Chapelle Neuve. There are three other restaurants there, plus a place selling wraps during the day, and the Chat Perché is sort of on the corner. Oh, and there's a pizzeria which also looks good, and a wine-bar with snacks.

At any rate, we had a superb meal, as I sort of figured we would. The centerpiece was grilled lamb with a garlic sauce atop what was advertised as a galette de mais, which sure sounded like a tortilla. Looked like one, too, except it was a flour tortilla. A very tiny glitch; the lamb was as tender and juicy as one could ask for, although that was about the only quality of it which came through to me. The thick wine list was filled with interesting local bottles, and because I told him it had a great reputation, Brent ordered a 2005 Chateau Puech-Haut "Tête de Bélier" which he pronounced magnificent. There is a certain amount I can discern from good wines, but it's sort of like hearing the bass-line of a good record playing in the next apartment; I'd love to hear it all. Afterwards, we retreated to Mesdames Messieurs, the all-organic wine bar where I'd been just before Vinisud this year, where we had the same wine I'd had with them. Brent was getting more and more impressed.

I had work to do the next day and, not being a fool, I did it, but when dinner loomed, I took off on a walk all over town looking for some places I'd always wanted to try for one reason or another, and then came back and did some research to see what the Internet had to say. Unsurprisingly, a few of them seemed to be all hat and no cattle, including one in what used to be the old public baths behind the Opéra Comique where I'd eaten some years back and been underwhelmed. There were also a bunch of new places in districts where there hadn't been any businesses at all before. But on my way back to my place, I passed Les Caves Jean Jaurès, down a narrow street leading off the square of the same name, which was crowded with students.

It looked homey, the menu looked interesting, and there was a menu enfant, which you almost never see. We decided on it, and it proved to be a great choice. Not only was the enfant happy with his chicken, but his père was most impressed with the wall of wine you get up and choose from after you've ordered. We wound up with this:

which is from Fitou, one of the premium Languedoc wine-growing areas, and one of the few that's always enjoyed a great reputation. As you can see here, this moderately-priced wine shows up in tons of Michelin-starred restaurants, and from what little I could discern, I really want to try this again when my senses are back in order. There was a lot of duck on the menu the night we were there, and I had a duck cassoulet, since I realized that this would be the last night in some time when such fare would be appropriate. And to make the dinner even better, there was a Canadian couple with a 5 1/2 year old daughter a couple of tables away, and she and the kid hit it off well, so that the adults could socialize some.

Brent and I repaired a few steps away for a nightcap at L'Acolyte, a perfectly wonderful wine-bar and restaurant which I was told is a huge favorite during Vinisud.

Isabel, the proprietress (seen on the right) is quite a character, and when she discovered Brent was from Texas, she confessed her love of riding horses among the cattle in the Camargue here and wondered if such a thing were possible there. Well, as it happens, Brent knows someone who puts together tours doing just that. We discussed this with her over a nice bottle of Mas Conscience l'As, from the eccentric Terrasses du Larzac district, which produces some of my favorite wine here.

I'd been hoping they'd want a drive in the country, but by noon the next day it appeared that was not to be. Instead, we went shopping for a picnic in the Halles Castellanes, the covered market at the top of the hill, grabbed a baguette to eat with the cheeses (a tomme from a very local cheesemaker, and a nice hunk of Roquefort Carles, which blew everybody away with its earthiness and light touch), as well as some cherry tomatoes (too early in the season), raspberries, red currants, and radishes. This we consumed sitting in the Peyroux park, only occasionally getting hit on by the fake deaf-mutes (is it possible that all the deaf people in France are Romany? I didn't think so...). After that, a leisurely stroll down the hill brought us to the Jardin des Plantes, Europe's first botanical garden, and again, stuff wasn't really up and running yet (I'll head down there with a camera once it does, trust me) and, after years of neglect, there's finally some renovation going on, and over half of it is closed to the public while that happens.

"I want to hit a home run on our last night here," Brent declared, so it was back to Le Grillardin, which is another of the rare restaurants which offers a child's portion of anything on the menu (as well as take-out service, which is not only rare, but downright weird for a restaurant that fancy -- although we saw a guy leaving with a paper bag which obviously had just that in it). Brent insisted Kristin try that incredible lamb, and he and I went for a piece of beef that, unlike most French beef, was tender and juicy, even though it wasn't a steak, but a, well, a hunk. The nightcap was a couple of glasses of '07 Chateau Capion le Juge at l'Acolyte, as Brent mused on the next day's train trip to Paris and the departure the day after that.

As we met for the short walk to the train station, Kristin handed me a bag of all manner of stuff they weren't going to take home, most of which resides in my kitchen, including the red currants, the raspberries (long gone), the cherry tomatoes (not so hot in person, but perfect on a pizza a night or so later), those Cheerios, and a perfectly hideous lavender corkscrew bearing an elongated Eiffel Tower and the word Paris on it. It was murder getting back to my own cooking after a week of vittles like that, but I learned so much, and had such a good time that I've now got a backlog of to-do stuff once I have this operation and get my nose back.

Brent and Kristin have been following this blog since its inception (as well as some of the others linked here), and Brent, after being here, gave me the very valid criticism that although I'm great at photographing my hauls from the market, I'm really not so great at showing how beautiful this city is. I appreciate that criticism, and will be doing something about it shortly.

Meanwhile, I just know they're plotting how to get back here sometime soon. Some of the rest of you might think about it, too...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mid-April Miettes

Well, dang. I just hiked down to the market and walked around and there was nothing interesting. The price of asparagus is coming down, but that was about it. Still, it's warm in the sun, the exercise does me good, and any excuse to get out of the house is welcome. As the days get nicer, the excuses get fewer. And it's about time to put down another blog post.

* * *

A while ago, I mentioned the USB keys that the local transport system was selling, with a special introductory offer. Five Euros for ten's worth of credit? Sounded good, plus one could refill the thing on line. This would get me onto the tram and bus system, so I went looking for the details on how to get one. It took a while -- the ads all over the bus stops and tram stations notwithstanding -- but I found out how you do it. All you need is:

* a filled-out application for a subscription to the system
* a photocopy of a piece of identification (passport or identity card)
* an ID photograph
* and a check made out to the local transit authority

which you then mail in to the transit folks and, if you're lucky, get your USB thingy back within seven days. It's called a Clé T@M, and you can read all about it here. And yes, this is a very mild form of the kind of bureaucracy France throws up all the time.

* * *

There's an exhibition of Louis Houdon's sculptures at the Musée Fabre that opened while I was in the States, and it's good enough to warrant an article in the New York Review of Books, but I'm watching the nickles and dimes at the moment (long trips always cause interruptions in the cash-flow, since I'm not working when I'm on them), so I haven't checked it out. Meanwhile, there's a retrospective of twenty years of the holdings of the city's photo collection over in the Pavilion Populaire. I wandered over yesterday, and must admit that, once again, I wasn't exactly blown away. Whoever's curating this collection is big on soppy romanticism, one-liners, and the deadly obvious. The lack of big names is neither surprising nor a detriment: there are a couple of Lee Friedlanders that are pretty good and two rather surprising pictures by James van der Zee, the pioneering portraitist of Harlem, not exactly the first person you'd expect to run into here. I was impressed by a series by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, whom I'd never heard of, called "Hommage to the Photographer." Taking up an entire room in the show, this portfolio of 27 black-and-white shots is an affectionate and humorous tribute to the street photographer, plying his trade all over the world: Beijing, the Congo, Fez, Moscow, Bangalore, and elsewhere. The rest of the show is hit and miss, but this room made it worth visiting for me. Oh, and so did the image the city's using to advertise it, Michel Maïofiss' "La Joconde: Café Mont Lozère," which is at the link for the show above, and will enlarge when clicked.

20 ans de collection - Fonds photographique de la Ville de Montpellier, Pavillion Populaire, Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Show runs through April 30.

* * *

With warmer weather comes more street performers, who are of variable quality, mostly dire. The guy who sits on the Comédie shaking one of those eggs filled with sand while blatting away on his digideroo was, I thought, nicely satirized by another guy I saw using a vacuum-cleaner tube for his digideroo, with no noticeable difference in sound. There are a couple of decent gypsy swing bands who mostly play the Saturday market, but who also set up here and there on occasion, a duo playing identical (and expensive-looking) guitars with a narrow oval sound-hole, and Bruno the Bluesman, whose enthusiastic ukulele playing and huge repertoire of songs make him worth checking out if you see him.

But the guys I wonder about are the ones with the pianos. Yes, upright pianos. One of them has an elaborate display of signs and press clippings saying that he's touring the world for peace, and he's a rockabilly fiend, with a large number of Jerry Lee Lewis tunes in his bag. The other one was the one I saw yesterday on my way back from the supermarket, just sort of aimlessly noodling. I wasn't going to stick around, though, because the sky indicated that we were due some rain, which came just as I got into the house. I've always tried to figure out how these guys get their instruments into place, but now I'm wondering how that guy yesterday made out when the heavens opened up.

* * *

Speaking of the supermarket, with the outdoor market being as dull as it's been, one nice development there has been the appearance of Pilsner Urquell. The French don't like beer, that's clear. The vast majority of what's for sale here is extremely sweet, with no noticeable bitterness from hops, and this is because a lot of it has a really, really high alcohol content. There's one you see the street people drinking which advertises in huge type that it's 8.9% alcohol (these beers usually are blamed on Amsterdam or Bavaria, but that's just the brand-name), but the more upmarket ones, too, adhere to this super-powerful formula. Urquell, on the other hand, is only 4.9%, which is more like it, and is nicely hopped. Expensive, though: €1.25 for a 33ml bottle. But unlike the Heinecken and Carlsberg sold here, it hasn't been sweetened for the French market.

* * *

Finally, some changes in the blog itself. You may notice an Amazon widget I threw together the other day, which currently features 20 cookbooks I use a lot. All of them are European-market-friendly, meaning I've been able to get nearly all the ingredients I need in Berlin and Montpellier over the years, and all of them are filled with great stuff to cook. And, of course, if you buy any, I get a tiny amount of pocket change from Amazon, which comes in handy.

And at some point, the banner at the top here will change, although I can't make head nor tail of Photoshop, and haven't been able to get into the various layers of the banner Marie kindly helped put together, based on a photo I took last fall. I'll either figure it out or I won't, but I bet I will, and I'll get it up there when I do.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


While I have reason to hope that some of the activities of the past month will bear fruit, they haven't just yet, so instead of hanging around the house waiting for the little chime that announces an incoming e-mail (work? or just another press release about a band I've never heard of?), I decided to take advantage of a warmish early spring day on Easter Monday by taking a walk.

There's one major road out of town (that I know of) that I've never followed, off in a direction I know I've never walked or driven, so that was the obvious route to take. It branches off of the intersection at the start of the Arceaux, the waterway that brings the water to the newly-scrubbed watertower in the Peyroux park, so it was easy enough to find, and off I went. And went. No picturesque houses, just box after box. There was a huge church whose architecture brought Mussolini to mind. I walked on, knowing that at the end of this would be countryside.

But boy, did it take a long time coming. Eventually, though, I saw a big traffic circle and some green. Just my luck: it turns out I have been out this way before. The green was the park surrounding the Chateau d'Ô, which I'd passed in August when my friend Brett was visiting and we were trying hard to leave Montpellier behind so we could drive into the countryside. It's an 18th century mansion set on extensive grounds, which also include an indoor theater and an amphiteater, where musical events happen and there are readings by famous French authors.

It's also closed on Mondays.

And, to twist the knife a little more, as I stood looking at the locked gates, a blue tram swept by, the same tram line that stops virtually in front of my house.

I'd noticed a sign on the way pointing to the city center down another road, so I hiked back to that and was in town almost immediately. The map later confirmed that I'd left at a sharp angle, and there's a much easier way to walk to the Chateau d'Ô if I need to. Of course, I can also take the tram.

Okay, fine, I thought. The next day there'd be a market. I'd gone to restock some stuff on Saturday, battling the pre-Easter crowds, and noticed a basket labelled "wild asparagus," one of my current culinary grails, even if I can't taste anything. But it was empty. Maybe on Tuesday there'd be more, and I could get a reading on the current agricultural bounty.

As if. The same old root vegetables are there, tomatoes are few and of the sort you could play several points of handball with before they smooshed, there were some sequoia-sized green asparagus stalks priced at buy-a-kilo-or-pay-the-rent heights, and nothing much else. I had to remind myself that the flowering fruit trees I'd seen last week as I took the train back here from Paris were only flowering, and that it'd take a while for the fruit to set and ripen. There were some pale strawberries labelled "Garriguette," but I wasn't convinced.

When I was in the States, people kept asking me about life in the "south of France," as my current residence is announced on Fresh Air. (I know Terry can say Montpellier because she said it a couple of times while we talked when I visited Philadelphia). It's worth noting, then, that while I'm still enthusiastic about living here and all, reality dictates that sometimes you can take a walk and not get anywhere, and sometimes you go to the market and it's the same old same old. Tomatoes will come, as will neat places to visit (if you're impatient for some, check out Gerry's blog, because he does it on a bike). As with the work, I just have to be patient.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Food From Afar

Silly of me to think I wouldn't blog anything from my trip to the States and Canada, but, as I've said, I'm trying to keep the focus on France. Still...

I started in Austin, of course, to attend SXSW, and naturally found myself headed to Mexican restaurants a lot. No new discoveries this trip, although Sazón, recommended from last year, is no longer recommended: the menu has gone mainstream, the service a bit better than you'd get at a minimum-security prison. The salsa's still good, but the experience isn't worth it. Instead, I had a couple of dinners at Azul Tequila, which has one side of the menu Tex and the other Mex, and a list of tequilas which should send any connoisseur into ecstacy. Me, I'm violently allergic to the stuff. For lunch, La Michoacana Meat Market on E. 7th St. is still the best place in town, and I also ate breakfast tacos there on my last morning in town. The egg-and-broccoli one was a bit disappointing, but egg-and-nopales (cactus pads) was fine. Another evening, I wound up in a weird Jaliscan taqueria during narcocorrido karaoke night. Food wasn't anything to rave about, but the scene was pretty amazing. And, thanks to a Facebook recommendation by Mark Rubin, I had superb fajitas, char-grilled, well-marinated, at Enchiladas y Mas, pretty pure Tex-Mex, but a place I'll return to.

The idea, as always, was to eat stuff I could never get in France, which included not only Mexican food, but Indian (my tastebuds failed me there), Vietnamese (how can I live in a country with so many Vietamese people in it and yet no Vietnamese restaurants -- wouldn't those amazing bánh mi sandwiches go over well here?), and, of course, Southern.

I only had two days in New York, so I didn't get up to much, although in one day I attempted a bagel for breakfast (disappointing, but the place was near my companion's place of business and conversation was the important thing), raw oysters and fried clams at the Grand Central Oyster Bar for lunch, and a bunch of great stuff at Grand Sichuan on lower 7th Avenue with a gaggle of friends ranging in age from 14 to 71 for dinner.

Then it was time for a brief vacation. There are two great scenic train trips that I'll take any time I can. One is between Oslo and Bergen, in Norway, so I don't do that very often, but the other is between New York and Montreal, and seeing as how I know folks up there, that's one I try to take every time I go to New York.

The trip starts with the Hudson River on one side of the train, with its odd islands (one with a "castle," which is really the ruins of a munitions company), lighthouses, and magnificent views of the far shore, which included snowcapped mountains this time, then moves on to Albany (hint to travellers: there's a 15-minute stop here and if you hustle you can buy cheaper and better food than the awful Amtrak fare), after which you get treated to Lake George and Lake Champlain, and the occasional small town. The sights on the way back were even better: the weather was awful, but the warm rain hitting the cold water caused sheets of mist to hover over the scene, making it spookier and more atmospheric, if harder to photograph from a moving train.

Two tips for Montreal: my friends were going to put me up, but had an unexpected guest, so I wound up with three nights at a B&B called L'Imprévu, run by a French Canadian guy and his Dutch wife, whose breakfasts are magnificent. It's not downtown, but it is right by a Metro station that'll get you anywhere you want to go. And one night, we went to this place, whose decor is about as glitzy as its business card:

Atmosphere be damned: if you order correctly, you wind up with scrupulously authentic Szechuan food. The New York restaurant's shredded pumpkin with green chiles wasn't there (that was truly stellar), but this place served the best dry-fried green beans I've ever had, a vegetarian home-style tofu that was also excellent (I'm used to it with sliced pork, but sure didn't miss it), and chili chicken which was, unfortunately, authentic in that the chicken was cut into tiny cubes (good) but without removing the bones or cartilage (bad). We started with something advertised as "pickled vegetable salad," which was Szechuan pickled turnip and turnip green and agar-agar, a pain to chopstick, but really tasty. I'd take Fuchsia Dunlop here in a flash! Next time: one of the soups, which are served in a bowl you could hide a basketball in.

* * *

How, some of you may be asking, could I taste this stuff? The answer is: semi. My sinus polyps continue to ruin my sense of smell, and yet I've discovered that I can taste certain things part-way with just my tongue working. I can taste sour and bitter very well, sweet to some extent, and anything fragrant not at all. This meant, for instance, that doing my annual survey of American IPA beers went pretty well, since the bitter hops tastes were pretty much there. But it also meant that, staying at my friend Mike's place in New York, I was sitting, reading, for a couple of hours one afternoon when I heard the key in the lock. Mike walked in and immediately said "Ack! One of the cats shit somewhere!" And I hadn't a clue.

One thing I did in Austin was to visit an ENT clinic, where a doctor examined my nose, said that I did, indeed, have polyps (the plural was news) and an infection (more news) and said that the drug regimen my doctor here has prescribed was a good treatment, but obviously wasn't working. He recommended endoscopic sinus surgery, which will necessitate a CT scan and sticking a baloon up my nose to get the polyps somehow. Fortunately, I have health insurance, although obviously some money for this is going to be needed up front. I had some very optimistic talks with a couple of agents in New York and of course it's too early for anything to have come of them, but I hope to be able to raise enough to get this done this summer.

Right now, though, I'm only a day off the plane and curious to see what tomorrow's market will have in it. The train from Paris yesterday showed a lot of stuff in bloom, but I suspect not much is ready yet. Still: spring is obviously settling in, and it's good to be back.
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