Les Crayères

A hard morning looking at trees and stained glass certainly builds up an appetite, so for lunch on our last day in Champagne we’d foreseen a trip to a little place on the outskirts of Reims called Les Crayères. In fact we’d only found it after we’d booked our hotel in Épernay; otherwise we’d have been tempted to lodge there too.

We arrived for lunch at 1pm and settled in at the bar with a glass of fizz and some nibbles while we perused the menu options.

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We chose the ‘Découverte’. There was another, more expensive option, but it only seemed to be more expensive because of the use of ingredients like lobster and caviar, which don’t particularly excite me.

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Our first amuse-bouche once we were seated in the dining room was a mousse of strawberry, tomato and lemon balm.

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The proper dishes all arrived covered with silver domes (“cloches”). I’m still surprised whenever I see one of these things being used. They seem so old-fashioned.

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Foi gras poached in rosé champagne.

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One of the best cod dishes I’ve ever eaten (even in spite of the lack of batter and chips).

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Courgette flower stuffed with quail meat and foie gras.

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An interesting twist on the cheese course, using a local cheese called Chaource. Basically a cheese mouse with lumps of harder cheese inside.

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I wasn’t drinking because I had the three-hour drive home straight after the meal, but the table next to ours was taking up the slack. The table of four consisted of a man probably in his seventies and four young men in their twenties, speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I wasn’t sure of the relationship between them (professor and students? Boss and employees?), but he certainly liked his wine and had long discussions with the sommelier before each bottle was brought out.

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A creamy pre-dessert.

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And then the Piña Colada soufflé. We’d already seen this being served at another table so I knew to get ready to film the process:

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As desserts go it was pretty big, but light as a feather. All that was left was a few petits fours, although our waiter actually forgot about them until we gently reminded him after we’d finished our coffee.

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#gastronaut

Bubbly

Call it poor planning, but it wasn’t until we arrived for our weekend in the Champagne region that it occurred to me that I wasn’t really all that interested in champagne. I can happily drink a glass or two on special occasions, but I can think of things I’d rather do than spend a day tasting glass after glass of acidic fizz and listening to someone explain the difference between ‘disgorgement’ and ‘dosage’. In the town where we were staying, Épernay, there’s a street called Avenue de Champagne, and many tourists go on a sort of posh pub crawl, working their way down the avenue, stopping at every champagne producer located there for a sample or two.

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Having said that, it was interesting to visit one of the largest producers (we ended up choosing Moët & Chandon). After watching a brief video we were taken downstairs to have a look at a very small section of the largest cellars in the whole champagne region. These chilly, chalk-lined caves extend for 28 kilometres under the town and surrounding region. They contain, in total, millions of bottles; the tour guide was unable to tell me exactly how many, as bottles are constantly being added and removed, but one of these alcoves (of which you can only see the front row in these photos) contains 30-40,000 bottles. Which is pretty mind-bottling.

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The bottles in the picture above are being stored in A-frames as part of a process whereby sediment gradually collects in the neck of the bottle. The neck (only) is then frozen to -28°C so that the small amount of wine containing the sediment freezes solid and can be easily removed. But during the time the bottles are in these frames they need to be regularly turned a little and slightly shaken, to encourage the sediment to fall towards the neck. These days this is done by machine, but in order to preserve the traditional methods some of them are still shaken and turned by hand, and this process is called ‘riddling‘. This means that the job title of the person performing this function is…The Riddler. We never saw one so I don’t know if they get to wear the costume.
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We exited through the gift shop, politely declining the opportunity to spend €50 on a Dom Perignon-branded USB key (and disappointed that they had no Riddler accessories).

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It’s definitely worth going to have a look around one of these places if you’re in the area, even if you’re not that partial to the bubbly, and there are some great restaurants nearby too (that’ll be my next post).

#gastronaut, #science, #travel

The Twisted Beech

Below is a favourite tree of mine from Hyde Park in London. The wide, knobbly, twisted trunk reaches a certain height and then the branches all droop down towards the ground, forming a canopy. It’s great for hiding underneath.

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Last weekend we were driving through the Champagne region of France and I noticed in a tourism brochure that there was a forest of “dwarf beech” trees called “Les Faux de Verzy” just outside the town of Reims. We made a short detour on our way to Reims and spent half an hour wandering there, glad of the leafy shade on this hot, sunny day. It was possibly not the best time of year to really appreciate the structure of these trees, as illustrated by this sign:

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Barriers prevent you from getting too close, as the forest management understandably don’t want people climbing on them. But as they’re covered with foliage it’s often difficult to see much more than a leafy mound in the clearings between other, taller species.

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Fortunately some of them are close enough to the barriers and have some gaps in their branches where you can slide a small camera through to take a closer look under the canopy at the elaborate twistednesses.

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I’ve been unable to find any explanations online as to why the branches form in this way.

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Afterwards we stopped briefly in Reims cathedral. The famous rose window was covered for renovations, and the Marc Chagall window at the other end didn’t do much for me, but I was rather taken by these two pieces located over the baptismal fonts by local artist Brigitte Simon. According to the official cathedral website “Entitled L’Eau Vive, The Water of Life, the window’s blue-grey tones evoke light reflecting on a river”.

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#art, #science, #travel

Villa in the Sky

Whenever we told people we were going to eat at Villa in the Sky they would invariably reply “Oh, that one where you dangle from a crane?”. No, this one is in a proper building, although it matches Dinner in the Sky for sheer vertiginousness.

Much like The Cube, this is basically a large glass shed attached to the top of a pre-existing structure (in this case the IT Tower, one of the tallest skyscrapers in Brussels), which contains a pretty small kitchen looking directly onto a dining area which can seat about 30 people. We had been given the table at the far end of the room, looking right over the edge of the building to the streets below.

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The view from our table, across the centre of Brussels:

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I hadn’t expected the room to be this small, or for us to be this close to the edge, and at first I found it a little dizzying and uncomfortable. As you can see the structure is firmly bolted to a set of girders attached to the main building, so we weren’t in danger of wobbling off, but logic doesn’t mitigate irrational fears.

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I sat very still and looked at the horizon. It was perfect weather for enjoying the view, and it was interesting to see many recognisable Brussels landmarks from different angles, and also to notice some things from above which aren’t visible from street level. This is probably the best restaurant view in the city.

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An aperitif helped calm my nerves.

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One other thing we hadn’t realised beforehand was that there was no choice when it came to the food. That probably makes sense given the tiny kitchen, so we were happy to accept the proposed tasting menu, and chose a selection of wines to accompany it. I can no longer be bothered to take detailed notes on what exactly I eat, so the descriptions will be basic and you’ll just have to drool over the photos instead. First amuse-bouche: crab.

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Foie gras cubes, about the size of a thumbnail.

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Blurred photo of raw langoustine marinating in a broth, with a lemon smear on the side.

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Quail egg covered in crunchy stuff and topped with a slice of truffle.

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Bream.

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As the horizon rose to meet the sun they lifted the blinds on the side of the room to let more light in.

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This had the effect of increasing my anxiety a little as the view was now clear on all three sides of me, even in my peripheral vision. But I kept my focus on the plates in front of me and continued drinking to dull the sensation of tumbling forward into the abyss.

A couple of dishes were served by a very young man wearing a large badge which identified him as “Arnaud, the intern”. He was keen to practice his English and described the next dish for us (artichoke, rocket and potato). I would have called the white stuff a “foam”, but he referred to it as a “cloud”. I’m still not sure if he made a mistake, or if it was deliberate, to fit in with the whole ‘in the sky’ theme. Anyway, it was nice, and lacked the bitter edge which often puts me off artichoke.

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Fish, fennel and fregola, which is a type of small, Sardinian pasta. Nice, but the piece of fish was tiny: about the size of my thumb.

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Chicken. Quite salty, although I like that.

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At this point we had a small pause before the meat course so we went outside onto the terrace for a better look at the view. Well, I say ‘outside’. I stood by the doorway and took a couple of quick photos before staggering back to our table.

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Other diners did what people these days do when there’s a view.

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Once we’d sat back down a police helicopter flew past exactly level with us, and scarily close. Seriously, only about 10-15 metres from the window. I bet they did it on purpose to freak us out. Bastards.

Next came the beef. First time I’ve had cheese and gravy together on the same plate. Again, quite salty. Again, I didn’t mind, although some might.

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Cucumber, cream and rum palate cleanser.

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Strawberry dessert. The edible checkered tablecloth was a nice touch.

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And then a selection of smaller sweets with the coffee. Chocolatey caramel stuff.

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Watermelon, meringue and yuzu.

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Red fruit coulis and a spot of wasabi.

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A very nice meal, deserving of its two Michelin stars, and even though most of the courses were petite we didn’t leave feeling hungry. And if you can fight off the vertigo the view is amazing. I’d definitely go back.

#belgium, #gastronaut

Stunted family tree

Last night we went to dinner at a chef friend‘s house. There were ten of us in total; five of whom I’d never met before. During pre-meal cocktails (which reminds me, I need to go shopping) we exchanged some basic personal information, including, as is normal in gatherings in Brussels, a potted history of where we came from, where we’d lived before, and what we were doing in Brussels (six of the ten present, myself included, were immigrants to Belgium).

Then one of the native Belgians, a lady probably in her late 50s or early 60s, mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Russian (at first I thought she’d said “mother” but that doesn’t fit with the timeline so maybe I misheard and she actually said “grandmother”). Apparently she had been smuggled out of the country aged three during the upheavals of the Russian revolution and sent to live in the safety of a Belgian convent. She spent the rest of her life here, never spoke Russian, and was never able to re-establish contact with any of her family back in Russia, even assuming they’d survived. There was no paper trail and any contact with the authorities hit a brick wall.

What struck me about this was how much I take for granted that my ancestors, as far back as records exist (which in my case is several hundred years) are known. I have names, in some cases photographs, and in a handful of cases living memories through my mother. But for this lady there was nothing prior to the two previous generations. Her grandmother had started from scratch; a refugee orphan cut off from her culture, history and family.

How many of the child refugees from places like Syria will have similar experiences now? Parents dead or lost during civil war or during their flight across Europe in search of safety, their memories hazy and fading, they’ll have to hope that they’ll be given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, to create a new history and a sense of cultural identity.

#children, #human-zoo

Isola Bella and Villa Crespi

Last week we found ourselves, child free, driving around the lakes of Piedmont. The kids were with their grandparents and we found a car rental company which would let us have a small vehicle for the entirely reasonable sum of €19 for two days. We sped up to Lago Maggiore to have a bit of a look around.

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The weather was fine, and on the spur of the moment we took a ferry into the lake to visit Isola Bella. Apart from a tiny village (full of restaurants and souvenir shops) by the harbour where the ferry docked, this small island is taken up almost entirely by a large stately home and the attached gardens. I had little interest in the palazzo, but we had to walk through it in order to access the gardens, so we found ourselves slaloming our way around groups of trudging tourists as they gazed at a large collection of uninspiring paintings in overwrought gilt frames, spread across a ridiculous number of drawing and function rooms.

The route was long and winding with no possibility of short-cuts, but eventually we found ourselves back out in the fresh air and entered the gardens. These were the most intriguing aspect when seen from the water as we approached:

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Here’s the view of the other side:

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And looking back towards the mainland.

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See that lacy white thing on the lawn on the right hand side?

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Albino peacock!

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In fact there were two, one on each of the twin lawns. And they regularly called to each other and put on displays for the smartphone-wielding tourists.

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Our lodgings (and, er, dinings) for that night were a short drive away next to Lake Orta. You may remember that we’d been to this area before a few years ago, and in fact we had driven past and noted Villa Crespi as an intriguing-looking place. So of course this was our destination this time. As the hotel website tells it, “Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, a pioneer of the Italian cotton industry, while travelling on business in the Middle East was bewitched by Baghdad and its charms and in 1879 finished his own magnificent Moorish villa”. This is the view of the tower from the terrace outside our room.

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The elaborate stucco work continues inside:

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And the view from our room towards the lake wasn’t bad either.

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After a bit of relaxation we headed down for dinner. Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo is originally from Naples. Hence the title of the tasting menu: “Itinerary from the south to the north of Italy”.

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The opening selection of amuse-bouches.

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I didn’t take notes, but I recall that the round buns at the top were focaccia (my wife’s only complaint of the evening was about this inauthentic version of her home town’s speciality), the green blobs at the bottom were crackers with gorgonzola and celery, and the macaroons at left were savoury.

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First course: oyster in a creamy radish sauce. I’ll never be enthusiastic about oyster but this slipped down easily enough, aided by the sauce.

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Raw shrimp in a “pizza”-style sauce (tomato, mozzarella, oregano). Strange and memorable.

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Linguine with squid and a rye bread sauce.

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Red mullet, aubergine, and a smoked provola cheese sauce. Fantastic. This dish was one of the motivations for buying the chef’s recipe book before we left the next day.

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Pigeon with foie gras and chocolate crunchy bits. My son was incredulous when I told him I’d eaten this bird, and asked me “Did they clean out all the poo first?”

It was a surprisingly large amount of meat and we started to feel full at this point.

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But then…CHEESE TROLLEY! A good range, although the waiter didn’t give us too much time to find out what each one was, and just gave us a selection.

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Pre-dessert was an alcoholic sorbet to be sucked up through a straw from inside an edible white chocolate cup.

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Ice cream and fruit.

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More nibbles. We were really full at this point and didn’t finish them all.

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Pretty, though.

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After this there was also a couple of sfogliatelle, but we really couldn’t manage those so we asked for them to be sent to our room and we had them the next morning.

Oh, there was also some good wine.

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But in spite of our bursting bellies it had been a very enjoyable meal. One of the best for a while, in fact.

At breakfast the next morning I saw mention on the menu of cereals, but couldn’t find them anywhere. Only after I’d had my fill of bread and cheese did I notice the small jars on the buffet which, on closer inspection, were revealed as bespoke cereal containers. Rice Crespis!

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I can see us coming back here in the not too distant future.

#gastronaut, #italy, #travel

Florida notes

A few final random notes about the recent trip to Florida, and the “little differences” I noticed.

Of the towns we saw in Florida (Cocoa Beach, St Petersburg, Fort Myers, Homestead) most of them were fairly visually uninteresting, at least to my European eyes. Wide and flat, with little in the way of distinctive architecture. Now admittedly we were there for the wildlife and theme parks, so this wasn’t a deal breaker. And we stayed mostly in chain hotels in probably the least interesting parts of town. We were usually just off a large through road surrounded by malls and fast food restaurants, so not the kind of place where you’d just want to go out for an evening stroll, but we did see the downtown areas too and they looked like more of the same. Our final stop, Miami, was wildly exotic and full of imaginative design in comparison, even though I’m not that big a fan of ostentatious, pastel-hued Art Deco.

Speaking of hotels, we had contrasting experiences with two big chains. Hampton Inn was fine, but considering how much they charged you’d think they’d be able to provide proper crockery and cutlery at breakfast. Instead I felt like I was at a children’s party, eating off of paper plates with plastic knives and forks, all of which gets thrown away at the end of the meal, of course. Large trash cans dominated the food area. Tacky and incredibly wasteful.

On the other hand the Staybridge in St Petersburg was very good. Not only did they have proper, grown up plates and cutlery, but they even gave us free food to put on it. I mean, not every meal, but Monday to Wednesday evenings there was a free buffet dinner and glass of wine for all guests. And a free DVD rental on our first night (although our kids insisted on watching The Phantom of the Opera). And a free shuttle bus to anywhere within a three mile radius, which meant most of the main sights as the hotel was centrally located.

St Petersburg, by the way, is known for its excellent Dalì museum, but there’s plenty of free art in the streets too, with murals all over the place, and especially near Central Avenue. These two were spotted near Haslam’s bookstore.

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Finally, I was struck by the flight attendants on our American Airlines. No, they didn’t hit me. I mean I was surprised at how old they all were. This was true to a certain extent of Disney World staff too, and I’ve noticed something similar in certain sectors in the UK. It seems much more common these days to see people near or even past retirement age working in the service industry, no doubt caused in part by the pensions crisis and a generally ageing population in the west. Considering that we were in Florida I’d expected to see fewer of these senior citizens serving me food and drinks and more of them sunning themselves on the beaches.

#art, #quotidian, #travel