Saturday, September 28, 2013

Provence part 2

Here's the next installment about our 2-week trip to Provence, covering September 10th and 11th.  After a day sunning and swimming and seeing the sights in Nice, it was time to start riding.  SO, I had never planned a bike tour before, and although we had some skype/cell conversations in planning the route, I was the one with the guidebook.  We loosely followed 2 routes from the Lonely Planet "Cycling France", the "Grand canyon du Verdon" and "the Luberon and Mt. Ventoux" but we never started in the recommended cities and didn't want to fight with bikes on trains, so there was a bit of adventuring involved.

We knew that we were starting the first day in Nice, and we had reservations that night in a town called Comps sur Artuby, and another one day ride in the book covered a bit of that terrain, so we wanted to go up through Vence and across the plateau de caussols, but the details we needed to work out once on the ground.  In Nice, we found a few scales of maps and Patrick brought a Garmin GPS (I totally want one now) and Monday night, we used their tried and true method of ride planning, which we more or less did the rest of the trip.  Patrick had brought a highlighter, so we highlighted the cities we needed to go to/through and the most promising route, along with possible side-trips and any alternative routes in case a particular road turned out to be too busy.  From the maps alone, there are roads of different colors from skinny little white roads, to yellow, to orange to red, and then special red ones that are the equivalent of interstates.  Clearly you can't bike on the interstate ones and the white ones are the best bets for low traffic, but the orange and red ones can be a bit of a toss-up.  Sometimes they are low traffic and have nice shoulders, and sometimes they are busy.  The white ones, though, can also wind about and climb a lot more than the larger roads going the same direction, so planning a route in an area you haven't visited takes a bit of guesswork, and a bit of weighing options (given the distance, time, etc. do we want to do more climbing and more km, or do we want to ride with more traffic?). Then, that day, Patrick kept the maps and the GPS and did the on-the-bike navigation.  He had a handlebar bag that made map access easier, and really, we mostly went off the GPS, just consulting the maps for more general progress checks, etc. The first day, we totally lucked out; even the red roads near Comps were very low traffic with good pavement. 

The first km were easy
The only problem, however, was that in the planning, we knew it would be a longer day (75 miles or so) but what I hadn't taken into account was how much climbing there was going to be.  We went up. A lot.  I guess it figures, since Nice is at sea level, what with being on the coast and all, and it is surrounded by huge hill/mountains, which we were heading into.  I guess the moniker "perched villages" should also have given us a clue that climbing would be involved; you don't have perched villages on a was a long, hard day, but was totally worth it.

Tourrette-sur-Loup, perched village number one of the trip

Gourdon from below our level
We started with 5 or so very flat km, riding along the beach to the airport, because there was a river we needed to cross and there are very few bridges across it.  Then, we headed up to Vence and through a few perched villages and around a gorge and then Sasha got a flat (our only flat of the trip, amazingly) and as we were changing the tube, we saw these crazy buildings perched way up on the top of a hill and said "good thing we don't have to go up there"...until 2 hours of climbing later, we looked out and there it was.  Oofda. And then, here's the kicker, it had looked like the highest thing around from below, but then, after we stopped for a very late sandwich in Gourdon, we kept climbing. And climbing.  Poor Sasha; hadn't realized what he was in for that morning, but he powered through it and eventually we reached the highpoint and had a few more hours of riding through a mix of forests and ranchland, but eventually, we saw signs for the Artuby river, and reached Comps.  So, I hadn't realized this, but I think the name Comps sur Artuby is like Marburg am Lahn.  The town name is Comps (or Marburg) and then the "sur Artuby" or "am Lahn" tells you which river the town is on, and is a way of differentiating in case there are multiple towns with the same name.  Not a bad system, really.  Perhaps some US towns should try it.

And then after Gourdon, we just kept climbing!!!
 Anyway, Comps is a cute little village with (as far as we could tell) one tiny convenience store, two cafe/bars, one nice bakery, and one hotel with a restaurant, and one more restaurant over by the gas station a bit outside the village.  We stayed in Comps 2 nights. We ate both nights at the hotel, and I think the food was some of the best of the trip.  The first night was a bit of a disappointment because we misread the fact that you could get pate OR omelette OR salad OR soup with a fixed price menu (we thought it was pate OR omelette WITH salad and soup) and the omelettes were runny, but the main courses were delicious and they had about 10 desserts to choose from.  The second night, we knew what was what, and I had a slightly more expensive Provencal menu with a salad with 2 kinds of duck and walnuts and then rabbit in this tomato sauce with olives and stuff and sorbet, and as I said, probably best dinner of the trip.  I'd totally go back and get that same thing.  I think Patrick took some pictures, but sadly, I don't have them, so you'll just have to imagine the food.

Stone bridge; I wonder what it used to connect?
The next day, we did a loop from Comps and thus were able to do it with only 2 lightly filled paniers for the 4 of us (to bring jackets and non-cycling shoes, snacks, etc.) which was nice.  We visited 3 perched villages, all of which were gorgeous and, while obviously not "undiscovered", there were cafes and restaurants and a few quaint little shops, but not row after row of tourist junk, and we saw relatively few other tourists.  First up was Bargeme (OK, there's an accent mark in there somewhere, but you get the idea).  We passed it on the ride into Comps the night before, along with this cool old stone bridge that looks like it serves 2 isolated farms.  It was a fair bit of climbing up to Bargeme, although not as much as the previous day, but there were cool old stone ruins and a pretty old church and tons of old stone houses and such.

Bargeme and Sasha

The next two towns were pretty much more of the same, so I won't go on at too great lengths about them. Mind you, that's not a complaint; it might be possible to stop in too many Provencal perched villages with medieval ruins and yummy food, but I can assure you that we did not hit the point of overload in 2 weeks. 
Chateaudouble; this picture doesn't quite do the town justice. It was cute.
Sheep? Where are the sheep? We want to see sheep!!
 One of the highlights of the day, though, were SHEEP!!!  You may remember that I love sheep and it turns out, Clara does, too.  They are fuzzy and cute and taste delicious and their milk makes amazing cheese, so seeing these signs made us very excited.  We were not disappointed.  It turns out that they use sheep sort of like lawn mowers, keeping the grass down on the sides of the roads. Sasha, if you let me get sheep, maybe you'll never have to mow our hypothetical future lawn!

No wonder the road margins are so well trimmed.
So, to get to Chateaudouble, we had to climb up to the village, but we'd had a nice, long descent that we had to get back up to get back to Comps. Oh well.  At least we didn't have all our stuff with us.  Clara and I did, however, stop at a dairy and pet some goats and buy some small goat and sheep cheeses, which we had for pre-dinner snack and lunch the next day.

We got back to Comps in time for Clara and I to take a short walk up the hill before dinner to look at the churches on the hill above Comps.  There were 3, and the lighting was gorgeous, so it was a nice end to a nice day, especially if we include the delicious dinner that followed.
Comps sur Artuby and church near dusk.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Provence part 1

So, we're back in Marburg after 2 amazing weeks bike touring around Provence France. I'm sure I'm about to over-use this word in however many posts it takes me to fully impress you with the awesomeness of Provence, but just to fit it in a few more times, amazing A-MA-ZING.  I think it's a good thing we were biking every day, though, because so. much. butter.  OK, so maybe your average French person doesn't eat too much butter, maybe you don't eat them every day if you grow up with Brioche and Quiche and Croissants and all the various other tasty things that can be made with croissant dough (pain au chocolate, which is a square croissant wrapped around 2 chocolate sticks, or my favorite, pain au raisin, which is a spiral of buttery-croissanty goodness with a sort of creamy custard and raisins swirled up in the spiral).  But I didn't eat them nearly enough growing up or something, and the hotel breakfasts were expensive and almost every day we woke up just a few doors down from an "artisan boulangerie/patisserie"and none of those days was I able to resist the draw of the buttery deliciousness. In a few days, once the France withdrawal kicks in, I think I'll have to make a batch of croissants. 

But enough about the baked goods, and I'll save ravings about the cheese and fruits and stuff for later.  Let me tell you about the trip.  Two friends of ours from the states, Clara and Patrick, were the first non-family to take us up on the offer of coming to do cool stuff in Europe, but rather than explore anywhere in Germany, we decided to do a bike trip in Provence, which had been pretty darn high on my Europe bucket list, and it met the criteria of being neither too flat nor too mountainous.  We rode from Nice to Avignon through the gorge du Verdon and over Mt. Ventoux, and then from Avignon to the Mediterranean at Ste. Marie de la Mer and back to Avignon.  Clara and Patrick started in Italy and rode some 500 miles before meeting up with us, but we decided to take the train and spend a day in Paris before taking another train down to meet them in Nice.  There was a bit of stress when 2 weeks before the trip, many hundreds of dollars of bike components were stolen from Sasha's good bicycle, but we were able to change our tickets around a bit and the bike shop built his bike back up in time for us to catch our train to Paris.

Paris is cool.  I have to admit, it has lost a bit of its magic for me in the last decade; I went there to meet up with a college roommate in 2002, when I was living in Tubingen, Germany for the summer, and that whole weekend we spent in Paris lives in my memory with this special magical glow of "culture" and "history" and "Paris".  I guess Sasha didn't read the same books or something growing up, because while he enjoyed seeing the sites, I don't think he went there with the long list of things that he -had- to see the way I did in 2002.  Oh well.  Paris was the bonus of the trip. I may no longer have the eyes of a 20 year old, "seeing the world" and traveling without my family or sports team for effectively the first time, but Paris is still a great city.

Notre Dame de Paris.
Sasha and the Eiffel tower

On Sunday, September 8th, we took the train from Paris to Nice.  So, we'd been planning on shipping our bikes in advance because you can't just wheel your bike onto most TGV fast trains in France, but what with the bike theft, that wasn't possible.  Instead, my Lonely Planet biking in france book said that we could take our bikes onto the TGV if we put them in a bag, so in Paris, we found bike shops that sold bike bags, disassembled our bikes and carried them onto the train.  We were a bit nervous about the whole thing, but it worked!  Patrick had to help us with a few bolts and minor adjustments, but at the days end, we had working bikes in Nice, and saved a bit of money, too.

We spent Monday exploring Nice, seeing the sites, and spending some time on its famous pebble beaches.  Or infamous, maybe.  The biking started the next day.  I'll write about that later.The Mediterranean was a lovely color, the water and sun were nice and warm, but I have to say, big rocks, even smooth, rounded ones, are not a nice beach surface.  They are hard to walk on and pebble castles are way less satisfying than sand castles; they take a long time to build, and one misplaced rock and the whole thing collapses.  Oh well.  Sun. Sea. Gelato. Our first amazing bakery find of the trip. What's not to like in nice Nice? 
Nice. Nice.
500 miles in for Clara and Patrick, 3 train rides in for us. And maybe 3 miles of biking.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Iron chef Marburg

OK, so no, we haven't been boring all summer, we just did so many fun things I got behind on the blogging and couldn't catch back up.  Maybe eventually I'll post about Stockholm and our various bike trips all over Hessen...I think our local biking "find a castle" count is up to about 20, ranging from awesome to ones where we wouldn't know it was a ruin if there weren't a sign, but this post isn't about castles, it's about FOOD!!!

As you know, I like to cook and I like to eat, and a bit over a month ago I was reading the little free newspaper that gets shoved in our mailbox 2x a week (it's good German practice) and read about this cooking competition hosted by the local paper (the Oberhessische Presse) and thought it sounded like fun.  The mission was to put together recipes for a three-course menu featuring potato.  My coworker Nuria also loves to cook, and I thought it would be really fun to cook with her, so after much discussing, and some German editing advice from our colleague Anke, we put together an "international" menu featuring potato in every course.  I'll admit, I thought we'd stand out with our VERY un-German recipes, and I tried to make ours stand out a bit more by instead of being boring and doing an appetizer a main course and a dessert, we had each course represent potato in a different season.

The menu (as we wrote it) was a "spring" soup with a chicken chive parmesan broth, peas, small potatoes, asparagus and lemon, "summer" tapas of Salmorejo de Cordoba (a chilled pureed tomato soup that is amazing) and Tortilla de patatas (often referred to as a Spanish omelette) and "winter" tourtiere (pork and potato pie) with sauteed brussel sprouts with pecans and shallot.

SO, for whichever reason, we stood out and were picked for the cook-off phase of the competition.  6 teams were selected, and were scheduled to cook two at a time.  We were cooking against a German team in a Kitchen studio in a town between 45 minutes and an hour away from Marburg called Breidenbach.  For those of you who are not German this may come as a surprise but here, if you rent an apartment or house, the kitchen will probably be pretty bare; there may or may not be counters, etc. and there will very rarely be appliances like stoves or refrigerators.  This seems like a kind of crazy system since often there are space constraints and you need a specific size of refrigerator to fit in the funny space in your kitchen, so I guess it shouldn't be surprising that there is a whole host of "kitchen studios" that will sell you a kitchen to put into that empty room where the kitchen should be in your new place.  Anyway, if you remember, our current kitchen stinks (as does Nuria's who is my neighbor here in the guest house) and so we walked into this store and immediately I started coveting every kitchen in the place.  Even those with odd colors or other things that wouldn't be my first choice were 100000000x better than what I am currently cooking in at my apartment.  We went out on Wednesday to check out the place, but the actual cook-off was today; it was the battle between German and International.

So, we showed up at 1:30 and promptly had to modify our recipe because, while they were supplying the ingredients, apparently you just can't get brussel sprouts or asparagus in August (not so surprising).  That's OK, we just left the asparagus out of the soup and served cauliflower with hazelnuts instead...

Anyway, they gave us nifty if ginormous aprons and we had about an hour to start getting everything ready before tons of people came, and then there were people watching us, 4 judges to taste the food including a professional chef and a sommelier with his own wine shop, fancy cameras and video cameras all over, etc.  It was kind of distracting.  I mean, not quite as bad as trying to race the Athen's Twilight crit or having to fight through the crowds to the pit after crashing at Athen's twilight (for the non-cyclists among us, it's a race down in Georgia where the course is about 4-people deep most of the way around with spectators, mostly drunk college students...) hence just kind of distracting.
In any case, as nice as the kitchen was, we had to drag all our own stuff like mixing bowls and cutting boards over, and even a nice new kitchen is still a new kitchen to get used to. 

Cameras and stuff all over
Four judges judging
What with the unfamiliar oven and all, my pie ended up underbaked, so the potatoes were a bit crunchy, which was very disappointing, but on the whole, we performed well, I think.  The chef said that our Salmorejo and tortilla course was by far his favorite and that course got the best points from the judges of all of the courses that day, so go team "International"!

Isn't that shaping up to be a lovely pie?

Alas, the other team beat us out by a few points and will get to cook in the final round.  Although, to be honest, that's a blessing because Sasha and I will be in Provence the day of the final round, and Nuria will be in a super special secret vacation spot with her boyfriend (he gets to find out when they get to the airport, so I won't ruin the surprise here that they're going to Peoria, 

The soup
Salmorejo and tortilla de patatas
Tourtiere and sauteed cauliflower
Anyway, as the analytical person that I am, in retrospect, perhaps we should have done things slightly differently.  I should have tested the pie more carefully when taking it out of the unfamiliar oven, and the chef hinted that the pie needed something to make it stand up better as a course (he said maybe a sauce, but goodness knows I can't think of a way to put a sauce on a savory pie that wouldn't just be weird). Also, perhaps we should have stuck to a more conventional menu format; we only had to feature potatoes in the main course, so we should probably have done some sort of dessert and not done the Iron-chef style "feature the special ingredient in every dish" approach.  But on the other hand, maybe that was what tipped the scales to get us picked in the first place, since our seasonal approach was probably unique. 

The sad thing about participating as cook is that it meant that I didn't get to try the dishes from the other team, although Sasha gave us a taste of their main course.  It was good.  Very German and (as is typically German) very salty, but good. Sasha said that ours were all better, although I suspect he may be a bit biased.  Cooking with Nuria has made me appreciate cultural or personal differences in our cooking styles (what do you mean you never measure do you know when it's enough potatoes???) so it would have been really interesting to see the other team cook to see if Germans also have interesting differences.

In any case, it was a hilarious and crazy thing to do what with the driving through the country side and cooking in a kitchen studio and participating in an event where clearly foreigners were NOT the norm.  I can't get over that here I'm the international one, American that I am.

OK, I'll add the recipes in a day or so.  That's actually one thing that I'm pleased with about our menu.  It's all things that are delicious, but that are totally approachable.  So feel free to give them all a try yourself.

"Kitchen stars" after a successful potato battle