Saturday, December 20, 2014

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous



October 21

Larry drove us to the TGV station at Avignon yesterday. The ride was beautiful, with a thick fog on the fields and the Rhone. You pass under the famous bridge shortly before you reach the station, which is not far, maybe less than a mile, from the old city walls,

We got there in time to have breakfast at the Alfred Kayser bake shop. The yogurt served in France has a remarkably different flavor from the stuff we get at home. The pastries at this place are flaky and light. They bake it at the shop, and there’s a picture window where you can watch the baker work.

Then we waited for a short while on the platform for the Tren a Grande Vitesse to Paris. The trains work and are on time here. I enjoy train travel, even in the States, but the trains I’ve taken in France, Spain, and Italy put American rail service to shame.

Once we got to Gare de Lyon, things got weird. And stayed that way. 

RER, the light rail system, requires a transfer between Charles de Gaulle airport and Gare de Lyon. Not a good idea with the weight we were carrying.

I know Cars Air France Line 4 stops at Gare de Lyon, because we took that bus line to Montparnasse on the 8th. 

But there is no sign, no clue, not even anybody to ask about where to meet the bus or buy a ticket. I wound up springing for a cab ride for 60 euros. This isn’t just any cab ride, it starts at a curious intersection of highways where two intense streams of vehicles play chicken to cross each other.

Then you get into bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic and pass through an industrial part of town. You keep going until everything is a combination of boxy warehouses, rust, and weeds. Even the ride to Newark Liberty isn’t as grotesque.

The original plan was to take the Cars Air France bus service from the train station to the airport, maybe have dinner there, and then cab to the hotel. 

A couple of months ago, I tried at least eight hotels—all that I could identify—that were in or next to the airport and not one had a vacancy.

The best I could do was some place called Campanile in a village called St. Witz. So I figured, since I was already taking a cab, Joanna and I could go straight to St. Witz. 

Which appears to consist of a large housing development in the middle of farm fields and an isolated section where our hotel is. It’s a corner with five or six budget motels and four bad restaurants, exactly like one of the commercial developments that have cropped up at every rural exit on Interstate 95.


Handy, bland, and smack in the middle of nowhere. 

Our room was on the second floor. That’s the European second floor, our third, and of course the place has no elevator. So we had to lug the bags up.

I was starving. It was three or four in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since the Avignon rail station in the morning. All the restaurants were closed till 6:30.

I was tempted to go to McDonald’s. Yes, they had one of those too.

This is France. How do you get a Chinese buffet selling pizza? The place smelled of garlic, soy sauce, and MSG.

The restaurant at the Campanile was all buffet service, too, and I don’t eat that way. The food is chosen and cooked according to how well it will last on a steam table, not how good it will taste. You don’t know how long it has sat out or who has sneezed on it.

There was a place called Aldo or something that was supposed to be Italian.

We wound up at a French knockoff of the Rustler or Lone Star steak houses in the States. I figured naively that it would be American themed but really have a French twist. Like maybe interesting sauces for some of the food.

The comedy of errors continued. We ran into our first serious language barrier at the American theme restaurant. We tried to explain that Joanna wanted the lamb done so it was pink inside. Not rare. She really preferred it well done (bien fait) but that was out of the question. 

She finally ordered a hamburger instead because for health reasons ground meat is always well done. It seems, though, that in our bilingual discussions of gustatory preferences part of the message almost got through. My rare steak with fries and green beans on the side came medium well done and without the fries.  

The beans needed salt, so I tried grinding some. The cap fell off the grinder and buried the haricots verts in salt. I finished the piece of shoe leather on my plate, because I could scrape the salt off that.

The cheesecake for dessert wasn’t bad, and besides, I was drinking wine, so how unhappy could I really be?

I wanted a fourth glass, but nobody stopped at the table. Or even glanced at it. After sitting too long, we decided that all we wanted was the bill. When it finally came, they had left off Joanna’s burger, so I pointed that out to the waitress. Entrecote, oui. Cheesecake, oui. Trois verres des vins pour moi. Et pour madam?

We stopped at the salon of the Campanile for a nightcap of Bordeaux. Well, I had the nightcap and Joanna watched me drink it.

The people at the Campanile were helpful, but the place is a mess. There was no privacy curtain on my front window. The bathroom light had to be fixed. 

Language was a problem here for the first time this trip. Most of the motel staff speak little English. 

That’s doubly strange. Although the Campanile doesn’t seem to depend strictly on the airport trade (The number of cars in the lot suggests that many customers come from the highway.) many guests are probably international.

But more than that, we just got back from a week in the wilds of Provence. Larry did a lot of the talking. I was able to place fragmentary requests and order from menus by slipping from Pidgin French into English. 

Joanna was watching TV and said she recognized three French words—oui, non, and voila. I think she knows vin, blanc, and rouge too. 

But she had no trouble with language. Larry’s theory is that anytime Joanna said something, people were so relieved that the conversation wasn’t in Chinese that they bent over backwards to speak English. 

The lady at the Campanile desk gladly called to arrange a cab for us at seven. 

I lugged the bags down to the lobby ten minutes early, but the cab never showed. The man at the desk had to call not once, but twice more. 

I was keenly feeling the helplessness of isolation.

During one of the calls, the desk guy relays a question from the other end of the line. “Quelle avion?” Which plane? No, I’m not letting a cab driver tell me when I need to be at the airport. I don’t even try French: “I need to be at the airport in 20 minutes.” More important, I wanted to get the hell out of St. Witz.

When the driver showed up, he came in a van that had the name of the Campanile and another hotel on the side. Is this a company van and they still couldn’t get the guy to show up on time? I don’t know.

By this time my temper is just about gone. But I have to control myself. I’m going to an airport, where I will have to behave. But I’m waiting for the next hit. 

Joanna told me, “Don’t think that way.” I know she’s right, but I couldn’t escape that sense of being jinxed.

We had told the driver “United” and gotten a blank stare. “United Airlines.” “Terminal One,” he says.

And damn, the driver circles Terminal One and can’t find where to drop us. 

I had something like that happen when I got reckless and tried a discount cab service one time.

That driver was a foreigner who couldn’t find Newark Liberty Airport. Who gave him a cab license? Of course, this was in New Jersey, so his brother-in-law could have bribed a politician. 

But anyway, the guy was either too embarrassed or too naive to ask for directions at the office. Instead, he relied on a GPS that with all the wisdom of a computer directed him to take local streets through Newark, because on the map that’s the short way. I had to direct that cab driver to the airport.

“What airline?” asks our French driver again. 

“United.” 

Oh. 

And he makes another pass and takes us to the right door. I don’t know which part of “United” he didn’t get the first time.

And this was no discount service. He charged 35 euros. That’s more than half the fare all the way from Gare de Lyon to St. Witz, a drive three or four times as far.

Funny thing is that we went on highways, including a toll road, to get to the terminal. It was a distance of a few miles, to reach an airport we could see from the motel.

Checking in was not bad nor was passport control.

We stopped for breakfast on the way to the security checkpoint. I had an espresso and a tall glass of white wine—strictly for medicinal reasons. 

I set off the metal alarm, and went through a pat-down. And we never did figure what triggered the alarm. Maybe hair gel. But that episode was amusing.

The gate, however, was a mess. I never expected to see anything that makes a New York airport look well designed or competent. But Charles de Gaulle Airport managed to do it. 

There is no place for people to line up, so they stretch across the entire waiting area and block the way to the seats. Reminiscent of Italy, there were no real lines. People tended to flow in a group past random airline employees, who seemed to be confused, as if they had never done this before. 

United may have been boarding flights at adjacent gates. Somebody called our boarding group and everybody tried to get into the gate at once. Groups that hadn’t been called were crowding the space. Maybe they thought it would get them to New Jersey sooner.

I kept asking who was in Group 3 and who was in Group 4. I wanted to be the last guy in Group 3. I don’t ever want to jump into a mob of panicked tourists, many of whom have small children. 

I heard them call Group 4 before my group was finished. As I say, it’s like they’d never done this before. But I got in without losing, or drawing, any blood. I was a little short-tempered, though. A kid came up and asked the security questions: Is everything yours? Did you pack it? etc.

All I could say is, “We’ve done this before. We know what to do.” That’s impolite, I know, but I just wasn’t in the mood.

General de Gaulle was a great man. I was moved to read de Gaulle’s words etched into stone under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. He was a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He deserves better than this. 

One thing I’ve decided after this trip: If the only way to get to France is through Charles de Gaulle Airport, I’m going to Italy.

I’ve written this on the plane, where I have no Internet connection. So remember, if you receive this, it means the plane wasn’t highjacked to Cuba.

I did, however, manage to spill half a cup of water into my lap about an hour before we got to Newark.


The photo of the day is of better times. Claude is on the left. That's Sophie with the great smile, and Pierre, their son, next to Larry. We're eating Larry's dog food stew and drinking Chateauneuf du Pape. 

Dinners aren't even supposed to get better than that.

Love to all.

Harry

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Orange and Limon




October 20

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s.” Well, yesterday we visited the place that gave all the Oranges in New Jersey their name.

It’s less than an hour from Beaumes de Venise, and it has a reasonably good pizza shop, where we had lunch, and the best-preserved Roman theater in Europe. I believe the only other one in as good a condition is in Asia Minor.


The pizza was OK, the flavors not as strong as I would want, but tasty enough. I haven’t had pizza in weeks. This one was called Diavola, and had pepperoni on it. There was some heat, but not as much as I’m used to. This may have been a traditional Continental style, but for my taste the tomato sauce needed more oregano and basil.

The flavor gained a great deal, though, because we were sitting outside, under an awning, by a street named for the Princes of Nassau, the family that eventually became the rulers of the Netherlands. They also held title to the city and territory of Orange, which didn’t become a part of France until maybe the 18th century.

One of the Nassaus became William III (just like me, almost) as the king of England. It was to kiss his ass, I imagine, that all those Oranges got named.

The theater in Orange is a semicircle of stone bleachers facing a huge wall. 

It would be impressive to see by itself, but the addition of the audio guide makes it fascinating. The city began as a Roman colony, created by veterans of Julius Caesar’s army. The theater was neglected, then burned by marauding barbarians, and has been partly reconstructed. The place is still used for performances. 

Seating was arranged by class. The top few levels of seats were reserved for slaves, prostitutes, other fringe groups, including foreigners. So that’s where I’d have to be, and it sounds like great place to hang out.

Historians believe there were relatively few traditional Classical tragedies played here. The crowds tended to favor comedies, and there were several kinds of those. I’m not sure what the evidence for that is.

Some farces had stock characters, identified by their costumes as a glutton, an old man, and so forth. Blond hair signified a simpleton. Dumb blond jokes go back that far.

Most of the female roles were played by boys, but at least one genre of mime had women taking roles. These were very popular because the women wore little clothing to begin with, and the crowds would encourage them to take that off too.

Then the Christians took over and shut it all down.

A hundred or so years later, the Visigoths plundered the city and set fire to everything that would burn, including the wooden parts of the old theater, mainly the stage and roof beams. 

The stage has been rebuilt and the seats may have been, too. There is an etching from the 18th century that shows the theater in detail. The seats, which are now made of stone or conctete and go up in steps, appear to have broken down into a bank of rubble, like much of the Roman Colosseum today.

The structure of the wall behind the stage is largely complete, although almost all of the elaborate decoration is gone. An imperial statue in a large niche was recovered in a dig and reassembled. Portions of original columns also were unearthed and put into place.

video

About three-quarters of the way up the rows of seats, you come to the entrances to an enclosed gallery. Off the gallery are smaller areas that look like caves. The theater is built against a hill, so for all I can tell, these may have been developed from natural caves or maybe they were built to look that way.

In some of the rooms are short films combining conventional video and holographic projections, so sometimes transparent people step out of the screen. I don’t know how the Romans did that.

One showed what one of the Roman farces might have been like behind the scenes and on stage. Larry and I were a little disappointed in that one because the girls kept their clothes on.

Another was a collection of brief excerpts from opera performances at the theater.

We went across the street to the museum, where we saw a few more fragments recovered from excavations at the theater. And many etchings of Nassaus, generally not a handsome bunch, but there was one of a princess with frizzy hair that kind of gave her the swagger of an affluent hooker.

We stopped at the cave of the Beaumes de Venise co-op on the way back. I bought two bottles of the Trias wine, one aged in oak and one not. 

Joanna wanted a bottle of the sweet muscat to take home. There were several types, and she couldn’t remember which one she preferred. So she tasted a few. I took a sip frome a couple of her samples.

So far on this trip, it has been the other way around. I was tasting wine to see which one to buy, and Joanna would take a small sip from my glass now and then. Here, Joanna was the taster and I was the sipper.

Dinner was a kind of a surprise. Remember the dog food? Larry bought beef at the Vaison market on Tuesday morning. We thought he said “dog” but actually he said “daube,” a traditional Provençal dish.

Following Claude’s advice, Larry made the stew on Wednesday and then reheated it for a couple of hours every day until Sunday. Everybody knew it was coming, but I think Larry was a little nervous. This was something that Claude and Sophie had grown up with. Their mothers and grandmothers made it for them from native recipes.

I forget all that went into it except for the olives and dog food. There was a multitude of other ingredients besides. Maybe mushrooms, leeks, garlic, or onions. We had it with plain boiled potatoes on the side, and a bottle of the Eddie Feraud red Chateauneuf du Pape. Then Larry came out with the big surprise, the 2001 Beaucastel. 

When Larry tasted it, he said “leather.” And yeah, once he said it, I could see how you could get that illusion, but I tasted soil and minerals, as well as a certain kind of perserved-fruit flavor that I associate with Chateauneuf du Pape, especially.

One of the remarkable things about the wine—besides its being 13 years old—is that it contains a high percentage of mourvedre grapes, which are difficult to grow in the area. It’s apparently important that the grapes have a hard time. Larry told me that the tougher it is to grow the grapes, the better the wine will be.

The rules say you can blend 13 grape varieties in Chateauneuf du Pape. Most of them don’t use all the grapes, but I think some do, including the Beaucastel. 

Grenache and syrah are the two most common grapes the regional wines we’ve been tasting. It may be different in the northern end of the Rhone Valley, but we didn’t go there and I don’t know.

Because mourvedre is more difficult to grow, it is often 5 percent or less of the finished wine. The Trias that I bought at the co-op consists grenache, syrah, and mourvedre, which is the minority member of the trio.

The Beaucastel may contain 30 percent mourvedre.

Later, Sophie and Joanna were talking about the house, and Sophie brought out a photo album. This wasn’t the first big house that the family had renovated. 

They had bought one years ago in Paris, in a blind auction, placing bids on a property that none of the bidders had seen. The house was unoccupied, and so the doors had been filled with cinderblocks to keep squatters out. One of the photos shows Claude’s mother entering the house for the first time, after Claude and Sophie won the auction. 

A couple of courses of block had been removed and she was climbing through the space onto a step ladder. 

Even so, some squatters had gotten in. One of them, Bozo, had left a message on the wall that Claude preserved in a photograph. Bozo complained about his neighbors who were leaving shit all over the place. “This is my squat.”

The current house had also been officially unoccupied for a long time. It wasn’t actually unoccupied, though, because squatters had moved in. Unlike Bozo’s housemates, the people here were a little more hygienic. They shat into plastic bags that they tossed out of the window.

There were before and after photos. The kitchen roof had been raised about three feet or more. Some windows were turned into doors and I believe some windows were cut into the walls.

When the wine was almost finished, Sophie brought out the bottle of limoncello. They pour it into little egg-shaped cups from a bottle that once held mineral water. That’s because it’s bootleg, made by a friend of the family. I think it consists of neutral spirits infused with lemon zest. 

Anyhow, a good time was had by all. No stew or wine went to waste. Considering all the wine I had, it was a surprise that Harry didn’t even get wasted.

The photo of the day is a selfie by Larry that shows the three of us in front of Claude and Sophie's backyard vineyard.

Bon journee, mes amis.

Harry

October 20
Hey Grasshopper,

How did your voyage to the hotel go today? How are your digs? What's the area around the hotel like?

I've been catching up: laundry, computer set-up (great machine! Thanks again for schlepping for me), moving back into the apartment, etc. I even cooked veal for Weds.

So correct about mouverdre. Yes, the Beaucastel is indeed 30 percent mourvedre. It's one big reason the wine lasts so long and ages so well. And you're correct when you report that very few, if any, producers use all 13 grape varieties. Except, you guessed it, Beaucastel. There might be one or two others, but I don't know them.

It was great having you here. I look forward to our next meet-up, who knows where. But I guess that's the fun of it.

Have a good flight back to the States.

Best,

Larry

P.S. My daube had no mushrooms.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Moveable Feast



October 18

When we visited the Beaumes de Venise co-op the other day, we saw a short film about the area and its grapes. For instance, the co-op was started in the ’40s, but the tradition of wine-growing in the this country goes back at least 2,000 years.

The film also mentions that once a year the co-op sponsors an off-road journey to various vineyards and farm houses for special pairings of Beaumes de Venise wines and dishes designed to go with them. Of all the weekends in all the year that we could be here, this is the one. They call it La Semaine du Gout, which may best translate as The Week of Flavor.

We got to the co-op parking lot at half past nine Saturday morning. We were in the first group, which was to start at ten. A second group would start out on the same route about 45 minutes later, and a third about 45 minutes after that one. There will be more on Sunday and maybe even Monday and Tuesday. I’m not sure.

We were in Claude’s truck, which led a convoy of six four-wheel drive vehicles. 

To get to the first stop, we left the road and climbed a steep, unpaved lane to an orange building on a terrace that may have been built a thousand years ago. The vineyards stretched in all directions.


Here we had the first course, three small appetizers and four wines. One appetizer may have been made with crab and butternut squash. The first wine was a sweet muscat. Then they poured a dry muscat. There were also two rosés.


We drove for, I dunno, half an hour, two days, whatever, over loose stone lanes between vineyards on one side and sheer drops into the abyss on the other. There were hairpin turns that took two tries, and every once in a while, Claude would talk to someone on the cell phone and then stop, counting the cars as they caught up with us. Four. Five. Six. All right.


We came to the second course. This consisted of three dishes, one of guinea hen (“pintade” in French), a second of quail, and a third with veal and mushrooms in a rich wine sauce over a puree of celery root. This was my first time trying guinea fowl, which was wonderfully gamy, almost like duck. 

The quail was dark meat, and very tasty. If I ever had quail before, I don’t remember it. It doesn’t taste like chicken. 


Either the pintade or the quail was served with a wild cereal, maybe barley.

The veal dish was very rich and delicious. The wine reduction for the sauce was almost bitter. 

The wines with these courses were the Terroir series that Larry poured at the cave the other day. The pintade went with Trias, the quail with Bel Air, and the veal with Ferisiens.

The cheese course was a soft sheep cheese, a sample of a strong Swiss style cheese, and a blue cheese. The wines were another sweet muscat de Beaumes de Venise and a sweet rosé.
.

The real treat of this stop was the view. We were on a hillside overlooking a valley. The vineyards lay in rows everywhere, along with pockets of trees and small hills with villages. There was even a castle.



Claude parked the truck near a structure that looked like a stone beehive maybe nine feet high. It was at the corner of a low stone wall with a fence on top. We could see through the fence that the beehive was hollow.

A man heard us talking about it. Was it a shrine? A tool shed? A novelty?

He told us it was a shelter for shepherds. In the old days they would be here with flocks, and if it rained, they could take shelter in a place like this one.

We went back to the co-op for the dessert course—four little pastries, a lemon tart, a pastry shell with dark chocolate, a little cake iced with honey and almond slivers, and a macaron with raspberry filling. These were paired with more versions of the Beaumes de Venise sweet muscat, including Paparotier, which is made of grapes from a vineyard owned by Claude’s family. 

Joanna drank most of the wine they poured for her, so she was ready for a nap when we got back to the house. Larry and I went to Gigondas to taste more wine.

Most of the independent caves are closed on Saturday afternoon, but Montvac was open. We were met and served by a lady whom Larry had met at a wine tasting in New York several years ago when he was working in the wine business. 

We bought two bottles there. One, called Arabesque, I enjoyed right away. It had no burn or bite, but still had plenty of flavor and I could still taste the rocks in the soil after I swallowed it. The other, Adage, was a little sharper. 

Oddly enough, the one that Larry expected Sophie to like better was Arabesque, which she tasted at dinner and said was too light. So Larry and I had to finish it.

We stopped at a cave in the village of Gigondas.


Let me stop here and stress that you’re supposed to act spoiled and snooty when you taste wine. Otherwise you will go broke buying two of everything. There are no bad wines in this country. At least none of the several dozen wines I’ve sampled in the past week has been anything but good.

Some are milder or sharper than others. And so far, there isn’t a red here that won’t go great with a steak or pasta, pintade or whatever.

So you’re looking for reasons to pick one good wine over another one.

The reds at this place were not as much fun as those we’ve been drinking all week. A white, Cairanne, was very good, so we bought that.

The town has a store where you can taste the wines from most of the local producers. They pour the samples from small decanters, shaped like miniature wine bottles. I think we tried three, and it was a close race. We wound up going for a 2010 from Domaine le Peage that is mostly grenache grapes.

Dinner was roast pork with fennel, and some other dishes of vegetables because Sandrine was going to join us and she is in training for the New York Marathon.

Sandrine is Sophie’s former step-daughter. Sophie was Sandrine’s father’s second wife. Sandrine is a delightful woman who smiles a lot, but also has an intense side.

This is a lady who, several years ago, went diving for the first time and came home to announce that she wanted to become a diving instructor. And she did.

She took lessons, got a certificate, and landed a job teaching diving for a while at a Club Med somewhere.

A few years ago, she decided that she wanted to lose weight and get into better shape. So of course she became a competitive marathon runner.

We had a bottle of white, either the Sablet or the Cairanne, or maybe both, with the pork. Rhone Valley whites can hold up to meats that usually cry out for reds. I might not try it with a steak, but with “the other white meat” the Rhone white works fine.

Dinner just about did me in. It must have been the fennel.

Good night, all.

Harry