Friday, 1 July 2011

Blois, Partie I

Posts for 27-30 June 2011


MONDAY, 27/6

Well, it's officially begun. I arrived in Baltimore earlier this morning and started off the culinary component of our French venture with a bit of breakfast (sausage, bacon, egg, and American cheese on wheat) paired with Orangina. And if the presence of Orangina on American soil wasn't a sign, a feature in the on-flight magazine focusing on the French and their cultural influence on a global scale surely was.

After (literally) a 40-minute flight to New York city, where I would be meeting Karen (one of the co-leaders) and most of the students (as the rest would be meeting us in Paris, along with our third co-leader, Julia), I overheard one of the passengers excited about the prospect of a 1am rebooking flight; indeed, she turned out to be one of the students going on our program. And we had flown into New York knowing full well that our flight to Charles de Gaulle had been cancelled, as a result of a grève (organized strike) on the part of a segment of the crew in Paris. With minimal opportunities to get on another flight waning, a few hours of waiting around turned into the realisation that we had been grounded in New York by the grève. As such, we refueled the students at the airport with a continuation of American cuisine à la Italienne: pizza. I'm pretty sure that will be one of the cheapest meals we will have on the entirety of the trip. In any case, in speaking with a few of the parents, I found out that we have a few foodies in the group, if not at the very least eaters. I can already tell we will all enjoy the gastronomical experience to follow in the upcoming weeks, and I can say with near certitude that food will never taste the same when we return. That said, late this afternoon we were transported to a hotel in Brooklyn, courtesy of Air France. After unloading our bags and settling in, we gathered for a buffet dinner with other unfortunate passengers. The photo above definitely doesn't do justice to the taste of the food, especially when it comes to the bread pudding that was offered. I spoke briefly with one of the cooks and learned he has worked for the hotel kitchen staff for the past 10 years, and particularly loves his job because of the international experience he has on a daily basis (whether in terms of his colleagues or the guests). Moreover, we talked briefly of the food he had helped to prepare and the bread pudding in particular brought back a sense of hominess to the meal, not to say that I grew up with it. Rather, and perhaps it was because of the long day, there was a certain care and comfort from the food and from the energy of the waitstaff which made the process of delaying our sojourn to France much more bearable.


All this said, I took a bite of a croissant for breakfast today and found myself confirming the fact that I needed to be in France, where pastries are plentiful and in my opinion simply uncomparable to American counterparts. Following breakfast and amidst the trek to the airport and through security to our gate, the group divided in two to create two shifts so we wouldn't bombard the panini shop at one time for lunch. Now recharged and ready to get across the pond, we were finally able to board the plane and depart American soil. En route to France our dinner options were between de pâte and de boeuf which in itself doesn't really say much in the way of making a decision; due to the grève, Air France had sent over a plane with larger wings to accommodate those intended for yesterday's flight as well as today's, resulting in a rather uncertain menu with seemingly uncertain quantities of each option. In any case, I went with the beef entrée which included a demi-glace and mushrooms alongside mashed potatoes (if a larger portion, a hearty meal for anyone from the north, American, French or otherwise). Also included was a rice pilaf with chicken, raisins, and chickpeas which seems to have been described by others around me as "strangely sweet." For dessert, we had a simple cake (I'd like to call it a pound cake but I couldn't taste enough butter or moisture to call it that) with a strawberry sauce drizzled on top. Overall, I can't say it wasn't the best meal in the world, but given the range of options for typical air food fare, it wasn't terrible either.


Five hours later, as we neared our final destination, the impending introduction to general European food culture continued with a light breakfast. Soon after, we landed on French territory and traveled by bus to Blois, the first city of our six-week language learning program. En route to Blois, we stopped by a mini-mart/gas station where many of the students had their first real experience in a French setting. We purchased three varieties of chocolate biscuits to hold us over until we got to Blois an hour later. The city of Blois reminds me of the best of American suburbs but with a clearly European feel, layout, and history. The architecture and charm of French cities, especially of this area's size, is breathtaking and continues to remind me why I love being in France. After meeting up with the rest of the group, beginning formal introductions, and taking a brief walking tour of the city, we divided the group into four smaller ones and sent them into Blois with money and a list of ingredients. Within half an hour, all four groups returned (some as soon as 10 minutes) with successful purchases which, when brought together, created our first picnic. In the process, they quickly learned how to work in a small group, negotiate a small budget, communicate in French, and especially given the context of this blog, where to find food and get a sense of how to feed a large group such as ours. Under a shaded area of trees, we literally broke into the fresh crunch of the French baguette, and had a great variety of cold cuts and cheeses to make sandwiches. Alongside fresh fruit and much needed hydration, our first picnic was definitely a success and I cannot wait to see how the groups do in the future and how they adapt to the different environments we'll be in the coming weeks. Following lunch, we visited the Maison de Magie and then headed back for a quick recharge at the hotel. With cooler temperatures greeting us in the evening, we went to a local crêperie/bistro and a majority of the students had their first introduction to fresh thin crust pizzas or galette, the savoury version of the crêpe. It was great to hear the students using their French, especially when asking for special requests (e.g., adding/removing ham). As for me, I went with un plat du moment, faux-filet beouf béarnaise with a side of frites. Though not necessarily the best, the environment (and the fact we were in France) certainly elevated the context of consumption and provided a firm foundation for the gastronomical adventure I--and everyone else, especially the other foodies--are expecting.

Shortly after finishing up our meal, a group of students and I went back to the same restaurant for dessert (as everyone else was quite understandingly exhausted). While three of the students had a taste of the French classics, mousse au chocolat (described as a "runnier than usual") and petit chocolat chaud (a biased choice), I went for ice cream: a scoop of cassis and another of dark chocolate. On their own, each flavour held its own but together (and I know there are those who disapprove of mixing fruit and chocolate) the combination worked very well. Each had their own additional ingredients--bits of cassis and of chocolate flakes, respectively--and had a creamier consistency than I'm used to in the States.


Today, I finally had my first croissant in France and, dipped into my morning mocha (of which I apparently needed two cups full), was especially content with life. Going through a similar checklist as for pain au chocolat, the croissant...okay, croissants...I ate today fulfilled each component. Of its many notable qualities, there was just enough butter to add a nice shine to my fingertips (from pulling the croissant appart). In addition, the exterior had a golden brown crust and had a bit of a crunch to it which welcomed the eater to a soft and flaky centre of many layers. Clearly, butter is no stranger here. Following breakfast, we were greeted by our wonderful chauffeur who took us to two great chateaux near Blois (one in Amboise, the other in Chenonceau) and who graciously helped us order and pick up the sandwiches for today's picnic while we visited Clos Lucé, the home of Leonardo da Vinci.

On our way back to Blois, we took a gastronomic stop at the Caves Champignonnière (an extensive series of caverns with perfect conditions for growing mushrooms used typically for la haute cuisine) which was promptly followed by a visit to la Ville Souterraine de Bourré (an underground "village" which must be enjoyed in person). During the tour of the caves, we were introduced to four mushrooms and needless to say, I definitely had my food anthropology hat on throughout the entire experience. The tour began about four levels below ground (there are 10 total in this cave system) where we discussed how the limestone walls were carefully carved out and were affected by the presence of those working in the caves.

That being said, we were introduced to four mushrooms grown in the caves, the first of which was the pied-bleus and which, due to varying translations as a result of its wide international market, is also known by its Latin-based name of tricholome. Typically, the mushrooms are lilac in colour due to natural sunlight but without sunlight, and naturally controlled moisture, this particular variation is completley white in colour. In addition, it is quite notable that the caves remain at a constant temperature of 12 °C (54 °F) which, coupled with the aforementioned, offers excellent mushroom growing conditions. Indeed, due to the variety and its complex, long-time production, one kilo of pieds bleu mushrooms (which are grown using pasteurized horse manure) are sold in the company's boutique for 17 euros. However, when considering this process and the shipping process, tariffs, etc., one kilo is sold elsewhere for 50 euro. And I thought chantrelles were expensive at nearly $30 a pound!

Our second stop within the caves were with oyster mushrooms, which are grown in oak sawdust combined with water; followed by shii-take mushrooms which are used principally for medicinal purposes (e.g., immunizations and for its anti-cholesterol properties) rather than in Asiatic dishes.

Finally, we stopped at the champignons de Paris which have been grown since at least 1810. Grown in straw which in itself had no introduction of pesticides, etc., it takes approximately 4 months to harvest 6 kg. In comparison to gardenhouse mushrooms which cost something in the realm of 50 centimes/kg, the boutique sells theirs or 3 euro, and for good reasons: it takes nearly 4 months to produce approximately 6 kilo of champignon de Paris, and it is with this longer time, the mushroom has absorbed natural flavours and nutrients as opposed to an extraordinary amount of water than the less-time-to-grow greenhouse varieties. As we neared the end of our tour, we were given the great opportunity to try these mushrooms; in contrast to all other mushrooms (grow in the wild, etc., and especially those which may have been introduced to chemicals), these mushrooms can safely be eaten raw. Our guide showed us how to harvest and eat the mushrooms: dirt removed, separating the hat from the foot and eating everything except for the base. I have never eaten mushrooms raw, but the taste of these were remarkably fresh and can stand on their own without butter or other delicious accompaniments. A final note: our guide was highly complimentary of our group and shared with us her surprise and happiness in seeing that the majority of our group tried the mushrooms, as other students and the public who typically go on similar mushroom tours do not give them a try. Again, bravo to our group!

For dinner tonight, we went to an Italian restaurant (yes, I know) and the gastronomical tastings continued. Two students ordered a carbonara dish and were pleasantly surprised by the taste of their pasta, as enhanced by the addition of egg; others (I should note the leaders had split up to encourage more language learning conversations throughout the meal) on my side of the table ordered a delicious risotto dish (with both bite and a creamy texture) and others still tried their hand at seafood.

As for me, I went with a prix fixe menu and began with an interesting salad of greens, pasta, and seafood (I'm fairly certain all shrimp, rather than the crabmeat I had expected), which were woven together with a creamy "dressing" which was certainly olive-oil based. I should note here that this marked the first time I took out shrimp from its whole form.

For my entrée, I received a majority dry chicken dish accompanied by great accenting features, such as the roasted potatoes, green beans, and balsamic sauce.

For dessert, I tried a dish I had been meaning to make for the past few months and which I had seen during a holiday episode of Iron Chef America: clafoutis, a very light cake-light dessert which was joined by a scope of berry ice cream and whipped cream.

No comments:

Post a Comment