Thursday, December 27, 2012

France: Again to France - Part 2; Cheese Fondue

     From the title, you can guess with relative certainty that we did, indeed, go back to France.  Last Saturday, we drove three hours to the city of Reims (in English, we spell it "RHEIMS"), which is the capital of the Champagne region.   The weather did not cooperate with us; rain and wind all day long but luckily, the town provided many indoor sites to see.  In the short 24 hours, we had a wonderful experience.

     In addition to being known for Champagne, Reims is also famous for its spectacular cathedral and it was also the location for the signing of the surrender documents ending World War II.  First, a bit about the town.  Nestled amongst the wine vineyards, Reims is a bustling city.  The old section, which has much charm is still quite bustling and busy.  We arrived mid-morning, quickly found our hotel and were directed to the Marche Couvert (the recently, re-opened Covered Market).  While the structure was interesting, the market itself was a bit disappointing.  The Marche Couvert in Metz is far more spectacular and luckily, closer to us.  After a quick tour, we headed to the Cathedral.  Wow, what a spectacular site.

     The cathedral in Reims was initially begun around the year 1200.  It is an incredible structure, both inside and out.  It truly takes your breath away.  What was equally impressive was that the cathedral served as the venue for the crowning of the French kings.  As you walked through the center of the church, you could just imagine the ceremony taking place.  The stained glass windows were magnificent and, once again, Marc Chagall created some beautiful pieces.  During World War I, the town of Reims was under bombardment for over three years.  During that time, the cathedral was hit by bombs over 300 times.  Luckily, through the generosity of donors (and specifically, John D. Rockefeller who donated over 16,000,000 francs), the cathedral was bought back to its original glory.  While many statutes and the facade of the building were damaged, the city kept these pieces of glory and they are housed in the Archbishop's Palace next door.  It took your breath away to see these statues dating back from the 1200's.

Reims Cathedral
     With stomachs growling, we headed over to the Marche de Noel, or Christmas Market, which was taking place along the pedestrian only, main shopping street.  I think that our stomachs took over and rather than take in the market, we were determined to find a restaurant.  Everything we found was completely packed with diners.  Through perseverance, we walked into a quirky place and were immediately welcomed and ushered to a table.  The restaurant was unlike anything that we had seen in France.  In a nutshell, it was the TGI Friday's of France!  Flat screen televisions adorned the walls, the noise level was high and the food of choice were incredibly large HAMBURGERS!  It was unreal but totally fun.  We thought we had seen it all until we noticed how the French ate their hamburgers...with a knife and fork!  No joke!  Even if the burger was a double decker...even if it had a sunnyside egg on was eaten with a knife and fork.  No picking up these morsels!

    Back out on the street, we encountered another French spectacle that could not be ignored.  While the Germans may have their beer tents, the French in this part of the world, have Champagne tents.  So of course, we had to take a sample.  Speaking of Champagne, we will have to visit the region again.  We were a bit dismayed that many of the champagnes in the stores, were ones that we could buy back in the States.  The prices were not dramatically different either.  In our other wine travels, when we have shopped in a certain region, we have returned with absolute bargains.  Not this time around...but perhaps we need to get out into the countryside and explore the area in greater depth.  This; however, did not keep us from purchasing a few "unknown" bottles to sample over the holiday.

     Our last stop of the day was the Musee de la Reddition or the Surrender Museum.  It was here in 1945 that the documents ending World War II  were signed.  The museum was small and the major attraction was the map room, where the signing took place.  For the second time that day, we were a bit blown by what we were experiencing and what had happened in the past.

     After a wonderful, fun and slightly upscale dinner, we settled in for the night and were back home early enough on Sunday to enjoy the afternoon.  Monday brought a welcome surprise as Jamie had the day off, courtesy of the President (of course, had we known about it on Friday when the order was signed, our weekend would have been very different.  There are a lot of places you can get to on a four day weekend.)  Nevertheless, we settled in on Christmas Eve and had a wonderful evening.

     I had an idea.  First, we calculated how many places we had visited in 2012 and how many miles we had travelled.  We determined that we visited 30 towns/cities/areas and had travelled in excess of 17,000 miles (round trip and not including our trips back to the States).  Then I asked both Dear Husband and Dear Daughter to list five places they wanted to visit in 2013.  We placed those slips of paper in a cup and during dinner, Dear Daughter selected a slip.  Five locations were discussed during our first course (small servings of potato chips served with Cremant); 5 with the second course (foie gras served with onion confit and toast and of course, Champagne) and 5 during the main course (cheese fondue).  As each location was selected, the owner had to explain why this should be included in the 2013 list.  At the end, we had one location that was unanimous...Portugal.  But we also had a starting point for 2013 and the lively conversation was great fun.  Another memory to sock away!

     Christmas was great even if we were missing our family.  We enjoyed speaking with everyone via phone or FaceTime.  We had a wonderful Christmas Brunch and an eclectic  Christmas Dinner, which we all participated in making.

     So, "On to France" has concluded for now.   We enter 2013 going back to Austria - leaving tomorrow to ski near Salzburg.  "The hills are alive..." let's hope the mountains are alive...with snow".

     We hope that you have had a wonderful holiday season and best wishes for a spectacular 2013.  Dear Daughter and I celebrate our one year anniversary as ex-pats tomorrow.  It has been a wonderful year and I truly believe that this move has been a good one for all of us.

Now...for that cheese easy and so, so good!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Crab Benedict

     We have this poster in our house, which I gave to Dear Husband years ago.  It shows two skiers and the caption says, "Again to Austria."  Dear Husband told me at breakfast yesterday that maybe we should cross out Austria and write in France.  While we were not going skiing on Saturday morning, we were getting ready for our second trip to France in 48 hours.  
     Last Thursday, we took a "study trip" to Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace to experience the Marche de Noel (Christmas market).  (In school, they no longer call outings, "field trips" but rather "study trips" and since we were pulling Dear Daughter out of school for this outing, that is how I explained it to the school.)  Strasbourg has been hosting a Marche de Noel since the late 1500's, so we figured that it must be something special.  The market is dispersed amongst four different neighborhoods of the old part of the city, which leads to a nice walking experience.  Strasbourg, while a spectacular city, is very touristy and we picked a weekday to visit in hopes of being able to enjoy the market without the crowds.  We arrived shortly after 10am and were rewarded with near empty streets.  We strolled through Petite France, taking in the cobblestone streets and the old buildings decorated to the hilt.  Every restaurant in town was advertising foie gras on the menu and we had skipped breakfast in hopes of enjoying a nice lunch.  
     The largest area devoted to the market is around the famous Cathedral.  The church is massive and a true wonder to experience.  Back outside, we strolled through the markets sipping vin chaud (hot red wine with spices), while Dear Daughter had the most incredible hot chocolate.  On sale in the little huts were all sorts of trinkets; candles, decorations, hats, jewelry and even local Alsatian food products.  I think that it must be wonderful to see the city in the early evening.  Wonderful lights hung across the streets and even chandeliers were dangling above us.  While the visit definitely put us in the Christmas spirit, a visit at night would be truly magical.
     We settled down to lunch at a very small, very cute, traditional Alsatian restaurant.  For the next two hours, we savored the most incredible dishes.  Dear Daughter and I shared a typical Alsatian salad composed of Emmentaler cheese topped with cold sausage and dressing followed by Chicken in a Riesling sauce with panfried spatzle.  Dear Husband could not resist the foie gras appetizer but he was blown away by his main course, a thick Venison stew.  None of us could manage dessert and after a digestif and a coffee, we were in the car headed for home.  It was snowing again by the time we arrived at the Air Base to pick up our Christmas tree.  But by Friday, the snow had turned to rain.

Dear Daughter in Strasbourg with Hot Chocolate
Main Christmas Market in front of the Cathedral - Strasbourg
    With the weather still yucky, we decided that we needed an indoor activity on Saturday.  Metz, the capital of Lorraine, is only a 90-minute drive and we had yet to venture there.  Knowing that there was an impressive cathedral there along with a covered food market, we decided to make the visit.  Wow, the cathedral is impressive.  Dating back from the 1200's, it boasts  the largest amount of stained glass of any cathedral in Europe.  Over time, many famous French artists have contributed stained glass works and we spent some time finding the ones made by Marc Chagall.  
     Just across the street is the Marche Couvert, the Covered Market.  Opening the doors, I went straight to food heaven.  Oysters from Brittany, foie gras from the Alsace, the most incredible cheeses, fabulous looking produce; it was all there.  It was almost overwhelming.  I had to buy something but I couldn't decide.  It all looked so good!  But as I walked past the butcher, I noticed my favorite cut of beef that I have not been able to find for almost a year now.  I immediately pulled a number and began the long wait.  I observed those standing around me, also in line.  There were fifteen orders still ahead of me and I could tell that many around me had been standing there for quite a bit of time.  Yet no one was huffing and puffing; no one was impatient.  Why get upset - you are standing there for food and food takes time.  When a number was called, the owner of that number would raise his or her hand in the air, and call out the number.  The butcher would walk over to the person and the ordering and the talking would begin.  The French cannot just make the order.  The French have to talk about what they are getting, ask questions, tell a story.  It is all a part of the process and we enjoyed watching it.
     Loaded down with my kilo of beef and some farm fresh eggs, we settled down to a light lunch of soup at the only restaurant in the market.  Soupes a Soup - serves....soup - almost 20 different kinds.  The working kitchen is tiny and we sat at the bar and ordered three different soups and beverages.  All the wait staff were women and the chef loved to call out to them, "Mademoiselles or Mes Enfants".  It was also another sort of entertainment for us.
     Back at home, we settled down after dinner to watch "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - all of us huddled together on the couch, singing the songs, laughing and enjoying the time together.  The events of the States were undoubtedly in our subconscious and I think that we needed the extra "family" time.

Stained Glass - Cathedral in Metz
Stained Glass by Marc Chagall
Dear Husband and Dear Daughter - Metz
     So we are at the end of our weekend and one more week before the holiday.  We are planning a short overnight trip for next weekend in advance of the holiday.  Again to France...this time to Reims - in the heart of the Champagne region.  There we will visit their Marche Couvert, their Marche de Noel, their cathedral (where the Kings of France were once crowned) and the Musee de la Reddition (where the surrender documents of World War 2 were signed).

     Today's dish is perfect for Christmas morning.  It is easy to make, decadent and festive.

Crab Benedict

Monday, December 10, 2012

Snow and Quinoa Salad

     I think that Winter is upon us and it arrived with a vengeance.  I have been transferred to Dear Daughter's school and last Monday, I was called for my first assignment.  It seemed like a relatively easy substitute for a paraprofessional who was sick.  I gladly accepted the assignment and Dear Daughter cheered (as she was thrilled that Mom would be driving her to school).  But what I failed to realize was... at this new school, the paraprofessionals are responsible for monitoring recess and the lunch room.  Now, that would not ordinarily bother me but last Monday, between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m, while I was pulling recess duty, IT SNOWED THE ENTIRE TIME!  There I was on the playground, no hat and no gloves.  I suppose it was my initiation or at the very least, lesson well learned.

     Most of the remaining week was blustery and cold.  By mid-day on Friday, it was snowing again and this time, I had difficulty making it up the big hill to our house.  However, by Saturday, it was a beautiful, sunny day and we were...spending it inside the Aquatics Center for yet another swim meet.  Dear Daughter did very well but I think that we were all a bit bitter at losing such a great day.  We were grumpy because we knew that Sunday would not be so nice...and it wasn't.  It snowed ALL day long.  Plans of visiting a local Christmas market were scratched.  We found ourselves inside, watching our version of football (which for us has become watching the World Cup Alpine Ski Races).  By mid-afternoon, kids were taking sleds up the hill, cutting through the fences to the pastures where the cows spent lazy summer days and hurling themselves down the hill at lightening speed.  Listening, you could hear the laughter and screams coming from their thrilling adventure.  Later, when climbing the steep hill just became too exhausting, they set about making forts and launching snowball attacks at opposing teams.  While the adults may have felt a bit cooped up, the kids were having a blast.

     I was sure that we would wake up this morning to learn that school had been cancelled.  We were not so lucky.  During the night, the temperature rose and turned everything into slush.  It just wasn't fair.

     We are planning some upcoming day trips to see what Europe is like during the holiday season.  I won't tell you about them now but hope to write about it over the upcoming weeks.

     In the meantime, in my new healthy eating kick, I am trying to cut out most processed foods from out diet.  Frankly, I think that we do a pretty good job but there is always room for improvement.  I read recently that you should not purchase any processed item that has more than three to six ingredients and if you can't identify the ingredient, then do not purchase the item.  I am also trying to incorporate some different grains into our diet and came across a recipe for a Quinoa salad recently that has now become our favorite lunch dish.  If you do not already know,  Quinoa is an excellent source of protein.

So here is something healthy for you to enjoy this holiday season.

Hey, I work tomorrow - subbing again for a paraprofessional.  She only has 30 minutes of recess duty but I will be thoroughly prepared!

Quinoa Salad