Monday, July 6, 2009

How I've spent my summer

It's been far too long between posts, it's not always easy to get the time to sit down and write when I want to. A lot has happened in the past few months: graduation, my class trip to France, and a seemingly endless job-hunt. First, the France trip:

On May 26, I woke up bright and early to head down to Cedar Rapids to catch my first flight. I got there good and early, and all of us from Indian Hills had time to get acquainted with the Kirkwood students. Just when I was getting impatient, it was time to go through security to the first gate. I'd packed my carryon well, with books and treats and a change of clothes, so I felt prepared for anything. I was really excited, this was my first trip out of the country! After saving up and working and breaking into my emergency Flee the Country fund, I was able to go on a trip of a lifetime! Even the mundane things like waiting for the plane had me so wound up I could hardly focus.

Our first flight was a puddle-jumper to Chicago, my group just about filled the whole plane. It was a very small craft, and I felt sorry for people who were taller than me, having to scrunch down to avoid a blow to the head. It took no time at all, barely enough time to make any headway in the book I was reading. We landed in Chicago and had a long layover there. A bunch of us took turns using Adam's phone, to call our families and let them know the trip was going well so far. We got lunch at Chile's, to celebrate the trip I splurged and got a margarita, and after that we were free to wander off on our own, as long as everyone got to the gate on time.

I looked at some of the airport bookstores, not really intending to buy anything, but just to kill time. After a few hours, we all were getting rather bored, and ready for the next part of the trip to start, so we found our gate and took our seats to wait. I put on my iPod on which I'd downloaded French lessons for the trip. When it was finally time to board, I was eager to get back up in the air.

As I've said before, I'd never made a cross-Atlantic flight before, I knew it would be long, and I wasn't looking forward to experiencing jet-lag. I'd resolved that I'd try to sleep for most of the flight so my clock wouldn't be thrown too far off. After dinner was served and cleared (not bad, all things considered), I tried to watch a movie on the monitor on the back of the seat in front of me. After a few attempts, and eventual loss of interest, I tried to sleep. Now, the seats in coach are not exactly designed for comfort. I kept shifting around, trying to get situated, but either my body or mind would not settle. Finally, I turned on my iPod and nested myself as best as I could. Somewhere between Phantom of the Opera and Pink Floyd I actually got some sleep. Fortunately, morning came, and so did the coffee cart, so I was ready to fuel up for another day.

May 27: We landed at Heathrow, looked for our point of departure, and took off! Up and down and across we ran through the city of an airport, and when we finally got down to the right level to catch the bus to our terminal, I realized I'd lost my passport! After a few seconds of incoherent screeching and sci-fi based swearing, I realized it must've fallen out of my pocket on the plane! Chef Gordon ran back up with me to the British Airways desk and explained the situation. In actuality, it didn't take very long for them to find it and return it to me, but it seemed to take forever, especially since I was afraid of either being left there or sent home! Sent home, at the beginning of the journey, before getting to see or do anything! That was not going to happen! Fortunately, I got my passport and ID back within half an hour of noticing either were missing. The downside was that by the time I got them back, Chef Gordon and I had already missed our flight and now had to wait till 3:45 for the next flight out. I was so grateful that he stayed with me. I would have been able to cope, but it's nice when one is stranded, that one has a friend along. It was a pretty good day, all things considered. I got to see the jumping fountains outside the airport, visit several shops, buy real Cadbury's chocolate and a small bottle of black truffle infused vodka, and just get down with my mall-rat self. Wasting hours at a time in a mall-like setting is still one of my favorite passtimes! We stopped for some lunch at a pub-like establishment and got to experience some of the local fare. I was still a little woozy from residual anxiety and the flight, otherwise I might have dared order the haggis. But I wasn't feeling quite that adventurous yet. Bangers and Mash, always a good decision :-)

Eventually, we found a place next to a flight board to take a quick nap. The frustrating part about Heathrow is that nobody knows their gate number until boarding time is practically upon them. Boarding was supposed to be at 3:30, and neither of us even knew what gate we should be heading to until about 3:00! In a massive place like Heathrow, I was worried about finding the gate on time, but as it turns out, it was actually quite close to where we were sitting. We got on board and were in Lyon before I knew it. We got our bags without any trouble, they were transferred to our new flight that morning when we missed our first one, and when we stepped through the doors, we were met by our guide Chef Michel. The evening traffic was quite thick, so it took a while to get to the hotel, and we actually had to bump back our reservation times at the restaurant we were going to, to give Chef Gordon and I a chance to clean up from our trip. Dinner was incredible: they started us out with champagne and a piece of foie gras as big as a deck of cards! If seen some at the shop at Heathrow where I bought my truffled vodka, and had wanted to buy some then, I was happy I waited! I'm not sure if anyone in my class likes it as much as I do, I know I helped someone else finish theirs. I wish I could've gotten a menu of what we had that night. For our main entree we had roundsteak in butter, it was divine! They kept filling our wineglasses, bringing out more food, everyone was just so happy to be there, that in the end we'd all made it in all right, it was one of the best meals I've ever had.

On May 28, I woke up, got dressed for the first time in my new chef's jacket, and went downstairs for breakfast. I love French breakfasts! There was brioche, and Nutella, and pain au chocolat, that's a great way to start any morning Once we all loaded up into the bus, we drove out to visit the Institut Paul Bocuse. I had been afraid Chef Gordon and I had missed out on that while we were stranded at Heathrow, but all we missed was a bus tour of the city. It would've been nice to see, but of all things I could've missed, I'm willing to take that loss. We were given a guided tour of the whole facility, the old castle as well as the new addition. I've never seen such beautiful rooms! We watched two cooking demos, I even got one of the chef's autograph! He had been on the winning team for this year's Pastry Wold Cup, and I'd heard of him already. I was happy that we were also given the recipes for what we saw them make. We had lunch there in the student restaurant, and had a very nice meal, and we'd be back to the Restaurant Saisons that night for dinner. After a flight of little appetizers, there was veal and polenta, a few different kinds of cheese, and an elaborate dessert consisting of cake, sorbet, berries, and pistachios. It was all very good, and I got to have my picture taken with the chef.

The next day, we headed to the covered market. We stopped for "breakfast" first off at a rather cozy eatery. First course was thickly sliced sausage, gratinned in a creamy sauce and dashed with green herbs. This was followed by a grilled steak and fried potatoes, also very good. It was a bit strange at first to have wine with breakfast, but after the initial surprise was over, we figured why not? There was even raspberry tart and ice cream for dessert. I think I could get used to this! I'd resigned myself to the fact that I was going to get fat, so why not enjoy it? Chef Michel then insisted that we finish our breakfast off with a shot of brandy (I think that's what it was, I'm not altogether sure). I shouldn't have done that. Enough said.

We then got to visit the rest of the market, we stayed together rather well. There were charcuteries, and chocolateries and fromageries and all kinds of specialized shops that you just don't see in the States. I could tell that food is much more important to these people, the time and care and craft that goes into it really shows.

After that, we visited a chocolatier that does everything there on site, right down to roasting and grinding the cocoa beans! They were even separated into sacks according to which country they came from. It reminded me a bit of the coffee shop I used to work at, we never mixed beans from other countries together. We'd roasted our beans on site, too, so that was a familiar thing to see. It's pretty much the same process. I was feeling wealthy, and in need of a treat, so at the end ouf the tour, I bought two of the tiny pretty cakes from the window. I didn't know what was in them, and I didn't care, they were both good though.

We had a quick tour of one of Paul Bocuse's restaurants, it was really awesome, like visiting a shrine! Then, to our surprise, an entire wall came alive in music and motion like something out of "It's a Small World" and we heard our own national anthem blast loudly into the room. For an encore, it could also play "Macnamara's Band". It served to dissapate any austerity in the area. It was a really neat place to visit, that I stood in that room where one of the culinary greats might tread.

Then we went to the village of Perouges, whose medieval architecture is well-preserved and quaint. We had frog's legs for lunch, a new favorite food for some, an old favorite for others! It was there that I first experienced fromage blanc, which is creamy and sour like yogurt, and is served with sugar and cream. The fromage blanc is so thick that you could hold a spoon of it upside down over someone's head and it wouldn't fall. At the end of the lunch, Chef Michel held a shaving-basin up to Jon, acting like he was going to shave him with fromage blanc or something, but then dropped thick cream into his mouth. A few got it on video, but I can only guess what titles it would appear under.

I found several gifts for people at one of the shops there. I found a little china doll for my grandma, it had reddish hair and a green dress, so I thought it was cute to find such an Irish doll in a French shop. I also found a dishtowel that came with a recipe for my mom. I'd asked her earlier in the month what she wanted for Mother's Day, and she said she needed a new kitchen towel, so I found her one here a little late! For me to buy a souvenier, it helps if it actually serves some useful purpose. The recipe was for a local specialty dessert, which we'd just had for lunch, and the directions on the card are so cute and old-world, like something from another time.
We were on our own that night for supper, but I didn't need anything, I felt like I'd done nothing but eat all day.

On Saturday, our first stop in the Beaujolais region was at an artisinal Huilerie, or oil mill. Their slogan is "One fruit, one oil", meaning nothing extra gets added in, just the pure essence of whatever olives or nuts are used. I bought a small bottle of hazelnut oil, I would've loved to buy more, but I had to make my money hold out another couple of days. From there, we went to a winery, whose entry looked like an old-fashioned train station. There was a museum, and a kind of creepy animatronic show, an educational video about different wines of the area, finished off with a *very* tasteful 3-D movie about winemaking :-) Seriously, it was kind of cute. Toursity, but cute. Lunch was another splendid affair, probably light by French standards. The pat`e was delightful! After lunch, I bought a bottle of wine in the adjoining store.

That afternoon we went toured the Hotel Dieu, a 500 year old hospital famous for serving wine to its patients. The architecture was amazing, with so many tall towers and spires pointing up all around, and the paintings on the ceilings. To think that it's stood for over 500 years is hard to grasp. Here, if a building is around for 20 years it gets knocked down and turned into a parking lot. Or they turn it into a nostalgia piece, as though a 50 year old building should be some kind of novelty.

For dinner, we went to a lovely restaurant called Loiseau des Vignes. Another excuse to get dressed up :-) I'm just glad that my dress was so forgiving, after being in a suitcase for so long, it came out without a single crease! Long live polyester! The amuse bouche was a small dish of the smoothest gazpacho I've ever had. It's normally served very chunky, almost like a salsa, but this was so fine I couldn't detect any texture at all. This was followed by a crab salad stacked in between savory tuilles, with a corn relish accompaniment. It was so good and so pretty and light, it just melted away. The entree was a supreme of pigeon! I'd never had pigeon before, it was served medium-rare like a duck, it was very good! The cheese course was goat cheese rolled in parsley and served with a balsamic vinegar reduction. We got to choose our desserts, I had something with a lot of chocolate! Some kind of mousse with a crisp shell, creme anglaise, and a chocolate hazelnut wafer. It was all very good!

On Sunday we visited the Grotte d'Oselle, caves with a long twisty path, and bats! I felt bad for Jon, who's claustrophobic, and Keegan, who is very tall. Squeezing into tight places isn't fun for either of these guys. The remains of prehistoric cave bears are on display near the end of the path.

Then we had a cooking demo with Master Chef Jean-Francois Maire, we all helped out either with prepping, stirring, or plating, and he was a pretty nice guy. We had asparagus with crab sauce, chicken with morels and the creamiest mashed potatoes I've ever had, and chocolate cupcakes with cherries and vanilla ice cream.

After lunch, we went on to visit the salt mines, it was pretty neat, I got my picture taken looking like I'm toiling away in the mines. Our tour guide led us to an underground fountain that dripped out water that was 30% salt. She told us all to take a taste on our fingers, so Chef Gordon drank a whole handful of salt-water :-)

That night we ate at the hotel, it was kind of nice to be in a more casual atmosphere after all the fancier meals we've had during our stay. I didn't even change out of my street clothes and had diet coke for the first time since I'd arrived.

Monday, June 1st, we visited two fromageries. One small-scale, one large-scale, and we all learned a new favorite kind of cheese, comte! We had a 12-month old and an 18-month old comte with bread and white wine, it was very good. It kind of reminded me a little of parmesan, a little of Swiss, in that it was delicate and salty and creamy. I wish I could find it here sometime.

For lunch, we had a local specialty: boiled potatoes with melted cheese on top. Who needs more than that? With ham, onions and pickles, it was a perfect lunch. From there we went to a smokehouse to see the way cured meats are supposed to be made! There I bought my dad some bacon, I thought he'd like that since it was smoke-cured, old-fashioned, and about as close to the source as you can get.

The best part of the day was getting to go to a farm, and taking a long carriage-ride over the grounds. We climbed a high hill and got to look over the edge, and the view was simply breathtaking. We had supper at the farm house, a simple vegetable soup of carrots, potatoes, and leeks. It was very snug and welcoming, the kind of atmosphere that set us all at ease.

June 2nd, after visiting an absinthe distillery and having a tasting of Jura wines, we had a remarkable dinner at Restauran Lea, a Michelin Star restaurant that decidedly earns the distinction! The appetizers, while I can't exactly remember what they were, were very good. It was something unexpected, one was some kind of spinach custard and the other was something with chicken I believe. The next course was a mousse of chicken stomach with a sumptuous crayfish sauce. All was beautifully plated, and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The entree was a local luxury, poularde de Bresse chicken with morel mushrooms. I wish I hadn't been so full by that point, or I would've eaten more! For the cheese course I had fromage blanc, which was so rich and smooth, I want to find a place around here that I can find it here! Dessert was vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, orange-laced brioche and wafer cookies. It was a once-in-a-lifetime dinner, it hardly seems fair that the all the best meals I'll have in my life are happening within days of each other, and I know I'll never eat that well again (until I learn to make it myself!)

On the 3rd, our last real day of the trip, we visited a farm where poulet Bresse are bred. Their breeding follows exact specifications for it to have that prestigious label attatched to it. I knew that the AOC covered wine and cheese, but I never realized that chickens would fall in as well. It makes sense, now that I've thought of it, but it was something new to think about. We drove from there to Cerdon for lunch, we had a salad with pickled onions and gherkins and delicious pate. We went to a nearby copper mill where we got to see many copper items shaped and formed and ready to sell. I bought a 1.5 qt copper saucepan that I plan to treasure for years to come. That night we were on our own for dinner, but as before, I didn't really feel the need for anything.

Throughout the trip, I got to know the Kirkwood students, learned to play a new card game with the group, shopped, and enjoyed the varying scenery along our course.

The trip back was exciting, too. We got to the airport in Lyon a few hours early, which was good, because it took a very long time for them to get our boarding passes straight. I couldn't believe how hard it was for them to get that in order. You'd think that all of us having our passports, IDs, and numbers in order, it would be a snap for them to print out our boarding passes. Not so. Oh well. When we landed in Heathrow, we started breaking up. I visited a duty free shop and had a free sample of 12-year-old Scotch, which I've never had before but it's very good! After we regrouped at a TGI Friday's, we soon realized that one of the Kirkwood girls, Danielle, had lost her passport! Unfortunately, she wasn't as lucky as I was, I don't think she ever found hers. However, she was able to get in touch with the American Embassy, and they were able to rig up enough paperwork and so forth that would send her along easily enough. Again, yay for the efficiency at work! After another long flight (with a short nap), we landed in Chicago where I was praying that the customs officers wouldn't open my suitcase. Fortunately, they didn't, and everything made it though unbroken and untampered. As it was, going through security was enough of a hassle, that even though I hadn't gotten held up in customs I barely made it to the gate on time. I was running along at a full gallop, completely out of breath, feeling like I was about to die, when I made it onto the plane! I was so happy to be heading home. It was a great time, I saw and learned a lot, but it was great to be back. More about my summer in upcoming posts :-) I won't be as long, I promise.