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Remember the scene in The Simpsons where Homer is daydreaming about the land of chocolate? Well, that was me in the south of France only it was with foie gras. Um, wait a second. That sounds kind of gross on a lot of levels. Well, even though I only had it twice in the nine days we were in France, it was equally as glorious as it was horrendous. But, like they say, when in Rome do like…Hedonismbot.
Here are some gastronomical highlights from the trip:
Picnics—By far, our favourite thing to do when travelling in Europe is checking out the fresh local produce and putting together meals to go. In Nice, we frequented the Cours Saleya Market & Monoprix, while in Avignon we enjoyed the offerings at Les Halles & 8 à Huit. Things we looked for included sundried tomatoes, olives Niçoise or en herbes de Provence, fresh baked bread, and, of course, fabulous cheeses. Whatever you do in France, if there’s an open display of cheeses that aren’t pre-packaged, for goodness sake don’t touch anything. In Paris, Cokebaby got his hand slapped for reaching out. Just remember, cheese is like a religion here. Don’t sully the alter. There are also plenty of pâtisseries and chocolatiers to go around for dessert.
Wines of the region are rosé and Côtes du Rhône which you can purchase for incredibly reasonable prices. Even champagne is dirt cheap here. For special treats we tried Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (a sweet fortified wine) and pastis (an anise-flavoured liqueur usually served on ice with a pitcher of water that you can use to cut it to your liking). In Nice, we found a great wine shop called Côté Vin where the young shopkeep was keen to speak English and gave us some great recommendations for local (and organic) wines of the region without an ounce of pretension.
Le Atmosphere (Nice)—On opera night, we tried finding a recommended restaurant called Chez Palmyre. Finding no signs of life there on that night (or any other) we wound up on the very touristy Cours Saleya Strip where we were reeled in by an employee. Yes, yes, tourist trap antics. But we were running late and it was literally a two minute walk from the opera house. We went with the formule which got us a starter, main, and dessert for 13,50€. Each of us had a fish soup (served with croutons and rouille), grilled sword fish with roasted vegetables in rice. For dessert I had a creme caramel while Cokebaby opted for chocolate mousse. For the price, service, and quality of food we weren’t disappointed.
Maison Nani (Avignon)—We kind of hit the jackpot with this little gem of a restaurant. The atmosphere is warm and homey, the service impeccable, and the food was everything we wanted it to be (and then some). On our first day, we arrived close to the end of lunch service so we missed out on the specials but after our meal we vowed to come back early to check them out. Both days the place was filled with locals and the owners were around greeting everyone personally. Our meals ranged around 8-12€ and you could purchase a 75cL Cotes du Rhone wine for about 4€. The wine came in unmarked bottles that brought the term house wine to new meaning but who can argue for the value? I indulged in a foie gras salad served with toast. Simple but delicious. For dessert I couldn’t resist the café gourmand: a cup of espresso with a sampling of Chantilly cream, a cake that tasted like homemade Ferrero Rocher, crème anglaise, and a raspberry crumble for under 4€. On the next visit, I was very happy to get the special tart of the day made with broccoli, onions and olives, with a side salad, and vegetables (potato salad, cucumbers, tomatoes, mustard fennel, lightly salted and boiled string beans).
O’Neill’s (Avignon)—At supper time many of the restaurants along the main strip were closed, we assumed, due to it being low season. Back alleys turned up international cuisine for very reasonable prices. It probably would have made some sense to have Chinese food for the lunar new year but, frankly, we didn’t come to France for the Chinese food. So, we stopped in at O’Neill’s Irish pub. Um, yeah, that didn’t make much sense, right? The thing is they had a bunch of French items on the menu. While Cokebaby enjoyed his pizza Alsace (ham, olives, mushrooms and Emmenthal) and pint of Kronenbourg blanc, I was happy to receive the yummiest (and biggest) salade Niçoise with a goblet full of vin chaud (aka Glögg or mulled wine).
Le Courtois Café/Pâtisseries (Nîmes)—A family-run business since 1892, this gorgeous spot is situated in the same courtyard as a palm-tree and crocodile fountain (the city’s emblem). The dining room had crammed seating but elegant Old World decor. Cokebaby and I felt like the veritable bulls in a china shop and if the weather had been a bit warmer we probably would have enjoyed the experience more on the patio. That said, the food was delicious and the service both pleasant and efficient. This was my second and last foie gras salad. Not quite as delicious as the first but it came with a tasty side of scalloped potatoes. Cokebaby’s poulet Basquaise (chicken served in a clay pot with peppers and smoky spices) was not the most memorable meal but he enjoyed it nonetheless. On the way out we passed the display case of pastries and, although incredibly tempting (and probably where they excelled in terms of food), we passed them up in order to move on to the sites of the city.
Restaurant du Gesù (Nice)—This was a quaint little Italian restaurant situated at a cobblestone square across from a church. We opted to dine outside in the enclosed patio next to a heat lamp. The food here was simplicity at its best. We shared plates of gnocchi (potato pasta) with Gorgonzola, and ravioli with pistou (basically, pesto without the pine nuts). On the blackboard they had featured a wine of the month which we tried out for 14€ (this time it came in a corked and labelled bottle). By the time we were served our meal the place was packed with locals and students.
Our last day in Nice was spent trying to cram in as much food and drink into our faces before we had to fly back. We had croissants, café crème, wine, cheese, beer, pastries, and more. By the end of the night I was wholly and truly satisfied that I could indulge no more. Thankfully, vacations do have to come to an end sometimes. Otherwise, I’d be the size of an elephant. That or I’d have to take up smoking as an appetite suppressant which I’m convinced is the only way everyone stays so thin in France. Kidding..!
I’m not by any means a culture vulture. At least by some standards. Sure, I like watching some indie or foreign films, am passionate about world food and wines, listen to a wide variety of music, and am fairly well travelled. That all being said, when it comes to things like ballet or opera performances my experience is pretty limited. By that I mean mostly through secondary school field trips. (For the record that’s a long time ago).
It’s not that I don’t enjoy these types of cultural experiences. It’s mostly because a good deal of my adult (and therefore able to afford things) life has been spent in a small city. Frankly, since moving here it seems to me that the options are fairly limited and I’m not about to repeat the brutally uncomfortable experience at the Halifax Metro Centre when we went to see the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo with Cokebaby’s family and accidentally heard some beautiful opera performed by Measha Brueggergosman.
In fact, outside of that experience, one of the few others I’ve had with opera is through a very small collection at home that includes safe bets like Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. However, on our trip to Italy last year we made it to The Barber of Seville at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice and were so amazed that we wanted to repeat the experience. It was an opulent opera house and overall wonderful performance which I enjoyed immensely despite undergoing the early stages of a sinus infection that would make the flight home almost unbearable.
This is all to say that we had some high expectations of the Opera de Nice on our recent trip to southern France. So, on our first day on vacation we took in a day of walking around Old Nice, stopping by the opera house to find out that all the main tickets were sold out and that we’d have to come back at 16:30 (not 6:30 as I almost made the mistake) to purchase last minute tickets in the upper tier. It was to be expected so instead of being disappointed we spent the rest of the morning touring through the market stands where we picked up some souvenirs and the best sun-dried tomatoes ever made.
Eventually we made it back to the opera house where I’m pretty sure I asked the ticket agent in French if he wanted two seats at the opera. To his credit he didn’t laugh at me and continued to converse in French without switching to English. As the assigned seating was sold out he lamented that the only tickets available presented poor to no visibility. But they were also only 8€ each.
From where we were seated we could see only part of the stage and that was only when standing. Although there was an overhead with captions to follow, that too was half obscured. It seemed that I understand all but every fifth word but it also seemed that every fifth word was the most important.
The opera itself was one that we’d not heard of: Les Contes d’Hoffman. Not Le Comte Hoffman as we originally thought while listening to the performance. A somewhat important distinction. You see, one of the main characters sounded like he was the Count from Sesame Street and every time he entered the stage with that distinctive laugh I thought we were about to get a lesson in French numbers (which actually would have at least been educational in some way). The unmistakable laugh only further confused my understanding of what was going on because I naturally assumed he was “Count” Hoffman when, in fact, he was actually the “nemesis” Lindorf.
Then, at some point—no word of a lie—a giant baby’s head emerged on the stage. For a little while it was all we could look at. We were transfixed and beyond perplexed and losing the plot line with every passing second that we weren’t paying close attention to the words or overhead.
That’s when it got really weird. A bald-headed robotic woman sprang out of the head. All bets were off at that point. It felt like we were watching a live-action episode of The Simpsons. I imagined Lenny and Carl standing by the enormous tête asking, “Ain’t you never seen a bald chick leap out of a giant head before?”
Even after the automaton proceeded to sing the very beautiful aria, Les Oiseaux Dans La Charmille, we couldn’t put the oddness out of our minds. Yet we persevered.
Then, the stage was flooded with identical blind couples tapping their way with white canes across the stage. By the time Act II came along Cokebaby and I were entirely lost.
Apparently there was an Act III but we never saw it.
For us, the opera didn’t end when the fact lady sang. In fact, there was no fat lady at all. And maybe in the absence of one, it ends when the bald chick leaps out of the giant head. I’ll have to test that theory out on our next operatic excursion.