Saturday, April 26, 2014

Holland: Keukenhof Gardens - Tiptoe Through The Tulips...

     The sign read, "Do not walk on the grass," but that did not seem to stop anyone.  There were people everywhere; walking, lounging, smelling…yes, smelling.  The aromas were so intense; you really did want to curl up on the grass, stare up at the blue skies and massive trees, close your eyes and take a deep, relaxing breath.  No, we weren't  at some strange 1960's event; however, we were in Holland…at the Keukenhof Gardens and it was SPECTACULAR!  Par for the course, we forgot the good camera but that did not stop us from snapping pics with our IPhones.

     Each year in the small village of Lisse outside of Amsterdam, the Keukenhof Gardens open for only a few short weeks.  Naturally, given its short life span, it can get really crowded. With that in mind, we decided that a late afternoon visit might enable us to see the beauty of the park in a less claustrophobic environment.

     We feasted on slices of foie gras and a delicious bacon and arugula quiche for our Easter Brunch and then began our trek shortly after noon.  Several hours later, we arrived.  While I had hoped that our late afternoon arrival would enable us to miss the crowds, I was wrong.  It was crowded but I suspect that it was actually worse earlier in the day.  Once we walked through the gates, I realized that it would not be that bad.  The park was big enough to handle all of us.

     It really is amazing.  The displays of tulips, daffadils and hyacinths are scattered amongst the grounds, meandering through the mature trees and paths.  The smell of blooming flowers was intoxicating.  However, what was equally if not more impressive was the drive to the gardens.  Surrounding the village are fields upon fields of tulips.  We had to stop the car and wander deep into the flower beds---gazing at a plot of yellow tulips before moving on to the red tulips or the purple ones. Surprisingly, these are not cut for fresh flowers but are grown for Holland's massive flower bulb industry.

     We spent at least thirty minutes on our own private photo shoot.  "Mom, take my picture in the pink field."  "Mom, I going to hold the tulip and you take my picture while I am looking at it."  "Mom."  "Mom."  You get the picture, right?

     Leaving the tulips, we headed to our hotel in Leiden.  What a treat it was!  Sitting along one of the canals is the picturesque Hotel Leiden.  Historic, yet modern, it was a delightful surprise and we want to go back again and stay.  We had a wonderful dinner at a quaint and inexpensive Italian restaurant and enjoyed laughing and sampling each other dishes.  Dear Husband decided that my pizza was the best he had ever had, while Dear Daughter demolished her lasagna.  The next morning, it was a short drive to the old town and we spent several hours walking around the cobbleston streets of the historic district.  It is a delightful city.  You get the feeling of Amsterdam without the crowds and expense.  The architecture is stunning.  The canals lend a certain easy-going vibe with cafes spilling out to the water's edge.

     We were home by early afternoon having enjoyed a short, memory-saving adventure.

Friday, April 18, 2014

France: Brittany - Scallop Festival and Perfectly Pan-Seared Scallops

Not scallops but oyster beds near us in Brittany

     Seafood is big in Brittany as it is in any area located near water.  While I haven't had much of the fish yet, I do love shellfish.  Breton lobster grilled with bubbly cream is really the best dish in the world.  At our favorite restaurant, the first course is a Breton seafood platter, which according to regulations must have no less than five different shellfish.   Itself, it is a meal.  In Cancale, we love to go to the oyster market at the water's edge. We bring a bottle of wine and feast on platter after platter of oysters (for 4 Euros a dozen!).  As we sit near the oyster farm, we throw our shells back onto the beach as many before us have done.

     Scallops in Brittany are much smaller than the sea scallops that we can get in the States but they are so, so good.  The season lasts from October through April and whether you are at the market or the grocery store, the fishmongers have loads of scallops, still in the shells just waiting for you.  I have learned a few good phrases when ordering these to cook at home...meaning - that I want the fishmonger to shell them for me.  We have a wonderful first course dish where we sear the scallops briefly and serve them with a garlic confit.  Fantastic.

    A village about thirty minutes away from us is the Scallop Capitol of Brittany.  It is hugely regulated, which means that fishing for scallops is restricted to two 45-minute periods each week.  This past weekend was the end of the season and the town of Erquy celebrated with a Fete de la Coquille, a scallop festival.  I knew that we had to attend.  Others in my family were not so sure.

     It was a bit cloudy on Sunday and the parking for the festival started almost a mile away from the actual event.  I used this as an excuse to see the village and to get some extra "steps" logged into my pedometer.  We arrived around noon but already we saw people leaving toting mesh bags filled with scallops.  Given that it was a festival dedicated to scallops, I knew that we could eat them but I was unaware that we could buy them fresh.  I had to have a bag.  Dear Husband was quiet and I knew that he was wondering, "What we would with an entire bag of fresh scallops?"  No worry...I had a plan.

     However, I had to find the scallops.  We walked through the center of town where many of the shops were open, which is not the norm for a Sunday.  We walked past seafood shops advertising scallops but I did not think that this was the place to buy.  Finally, we reached the festival.  It was a bit of a letdown....mainly just kiosks selling all sorts of things.  A few restaurant tents were set up but mainly the restaurants along the port seem to be more "scallop" oriented.  We made it to the edge of the port and there they were!  In the fishery were scallops and scallops and scallops.  At one corner, you could walk up, pay your 20 Euros and walk away with your mesh bag filled to the brim.  Ladies were in the background, sorting and going through that morning's catch.  In the center, were two gentlemen searing scallops and for 5 Euros, you had a plate of steaming scallops.  At the far end, the fishmongers were selling fish caught in the bay.  It was perfect.

Dear Daughter having Scallops at the Festival

     Armed with my bag weighing 12 pounds, I carried "my baby" back up the hill and to the car.  Upon return home, it took me almost an hour to extract each morsel from the shell.  I have a new appreciation of the fishmongers.  Since I collect scallop shells, I had to save most of them and my car is not happy with me now...the lingering smell of the sea permeates the carpet.   Now, back in Belgium, I have a load of scallop shells.  What will I do with them all???

My haul...39 scallops!

     Would I go back to the Scallop Festival...of course.  It was a little hokey but then again, I have been to a Radish Festival.  I might do things a bit differently but I would still love to walk back to the car with my sac of scallops hauled from the boat that very morning.

     That night, we had mussels as a first course.  These mussels were ones that we had "plucked" from the rocks of our favorite beach the day before and they were incredible!  For the main course, we had simple, pan-seared scallops and they just wonderful.  Even Dear Daughter ate slowly that evening in order to savor every bite.  My secret...we have enough for a second meal!

Oh, and the cows are back!!!  Where is Francis?

Pan Seared Scallops

Thursday, April 10, 2014

France: Plancoet and The Resiliency of People

     "I am afraid to look.  How bad do you think it will be?"  Dear Daughter has just moved to the front seat for the final ten minutes of our six hour drive to our apartment in France.  She is referring to the flood that recently occured in our village - the worst in ten years.  
     In late February, we heard that the village was under water…not all of the village but just one section…our section.  I quickly started scouring the French news sites for information and in the process learned the French word for flood, "inondation".  Using this word and the name of our village, I saw a horrifying video of flood waters rushing through the street behind our apartment and watched chairs and tables from the little bar behind us float away.
     This was not completely caused by nature.  There had been heavy rains earlier in the month and the tides had been a bit strange but what caused this mishap was a terrible decision.  Up river, a smaller village was under threat of flooding.  So, the leaders of the towns met and agreed that the lock gates were to be open.  In their minds, this was crucial to helping the neighboring village while only causing minor flooding in ours.  They miscalculated.  For three days, our little section of the village experienced flood waters of over one meter or nearly 40 inches!  It was devastating to the small businesses that surround our little section of town.  Occupants had to be evacuated and later I read that the local businessmen had a screaming match with the town leaders.
     Our apartment is on the third floor of the town's major landmark building, overlooking the river and within close proximity to several restaurants and shops.  We knew that the apartment would be fine but worried about those on the ground floor.  There would be no way that they could have escaped the flood.  
     Surprisingly, the village looked wonderful and it is clear that the city leaders are trying to make sure that the damage does not impact the town, especially on the verge of tourist season.  The sidewalks have been repaired and flowers have been planted.  Only a few damaged trees are still visible in the town park.  However, upon closer look, we realized that every restaurant in the flood's path has not yet reopened.
     Across the street from us is a Michelin 1-star restaurant.  The chef is one of Brittany's best and a lover of the region.  While he serves haute-cuisine, he is also happy walking across the street to the simple brasserie on Sunday mornings carrying little bundles of morsels for the owner and sitting down for a quick kir with friends before beginning the lunch service.  This he told me once was for him.  About 18-months ago, he turned over the restaurant to his son.  The son has been carrying on the tradition well and stamping out his own spot - completely renovating the design of the dining room.  What was once comfortable and elegant is now modern and chic.  Dear Daughter loves the new design…us, "old folks" miss the old space.  Regardless of all of this, the restaurant kitchen was destroyed during the flood.  Hundreds of thousands of euros in food was wasted.  The father has been very outspoken about his feelings over the disaster and its cause.  The son says he will enjoy the new kitchen.  You cannot see in the windows.  They are covered in dark paper with a handwritten note that tells us that if you that curious, then send a letter.  They are closed because of the horrible flood.  Their website says that they will reopen in June.
     Next to them is a simple bar/brasserie, which also serves as the town's tabak (or cigarette vendor).  Their sign reads that they are also closed due to the flood and they are working hard to reopen as soon as possible but they do not know when that will be.  Daily, I see workmen entering both establishments.  
     Across the street from them is a brasserie that just changed owners last April.  A couple from Paris bought the place, kept the name and some of the menu items and then literally, "jazzed" up the place.  I have been there only once but it definitely had potential.  Now the menu boards still advertise food that will not be made for quite some time but I still see a work taking place inside.
     These people will not give up.  I have no idea how much the government or insurance will cover their damages, but this is what they do and they will not let the flood ruin their businesses.  They will overcome.  The small grocer is open.  The hairdresser is, too.  I can still post a letter at the post office.  A few businesses moved up to the main street of town, out of danger from future floods.  It is a bit quieter in the evenings but during the day, I see the progress being made.
     The entry to our building looks like a war zone.  Mushrooms are growing in the hallway even with dehumidifiers and heaters running around the clock. The ground floor apartments are uninhabitable and while I haven't seen anyone working on them, I see little pieces of progress being made each day.  
     But the main character of this post isn't the Michelin-starred chef, or the grocer or the town leader.  It is the owner of the small bar that stands directly behind our apartment.  I will call its iconic owner, "T". To get to our place, you have to walk past the bar.  It isn't seedy and only rarely is it open late. Sometimes on the weekends, we can hear T on a microphone but we do not know what he is saying.  The man is probably my age and looks decades older.  He chain-smokes.  He is open when he wants to be and closed when he wants to be.  He will chase out drunks.  He also is the neighborhood watchdog and I have seen him on a number of occasions protecting what he believes needs to be protected.
     We do not visit him enough - purely because of our limited language skills.  Of late, we have tried to stop in and have a beer whenever we are in town.  Dear Daughter is enamoured with his newest dog, Hunter, as she was with is previous one, Monsieur.  We are trying slowly to build some sort of relationship with him…slowly…we have had the apartment for seven years.
     The interior of his bar was completely destroyed.  The small wooden fence that he put up around the exterior that served as a small terrace was washed away along with the chairs and tables.  The flower boxes that his wife set around the fence are long gone.  When we arrive on Monday, the windows and doors are shut but we notice a workman's truck.  T has handpainted a sign that indicates he will reopen on Thursday.  We watch the people going in and out this week but we never saw T.  We see his car; we see Hunter.  But we see neither T nor his wife.  Last night, work was going inside until quite late.  It seemed as though many in the neighborhood had stopped by to lend a hand or to have a beer.
     Today at 11am, he reopened.  No fanfare.  He just opened the doors.  The fence has not been replaced.  There are no tables, chairs or flowers outside.  I finally see him shortly before 4pm, sitting on the curb outside our apartment.  "Ca va?" I ask.  He looks up and says "Ca va".  I was supposed to be going for a run but I realize that he wants me to see inside.  We walk across the street and into his bar.  There are no tables and chairs.  The bar is in place along with the tv.  It looks completely different but not in a bad way.  He tells his wife that I am here…the American.  She comes from around the bar and kisses me on the cheek.  We go through some pleasantries…is our place ok…how long will we be here…are we on holiday?  She asks if I want a coffee.  I say no and try to indicate that I am going for a run.  She seems a bit dismayed and I assure her that I will be back tomorrow.  She tells me a little about the flood - how high the waters come.  Then T pops up with a question, "You like?"  I tell him that I do and ask him if he likes the new place.  He shakes his head no but then smiles and says that he does.  I am not sure if he does or not.  However, this is his life.
     As I wish them a good day and tell them that I will be back tomorrow, his wife says, "We were the first."  It took me a moment to understand what she is telling me.  It is important to them to reopen…to be the first to reopen.  Regardless of chairs and tables…the bar is reopen.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Return of Old Friends - Bacon and Leek Quiche

     Last Saturday, we spent the day travelling to several monestaries to check out trappist beers.  I have an article due soon and wanted to gather more research.  Needless to say that Dear Daughter wasn't thrilled with the adventure but she handled it well.  Upon our return home, I heard her squeal with delight as she looked across the pasture to see that the cows had returned.
     Our cows disappeared in mid-November.  Several weeks ago, the pasture was mowed and the farmer inspected the fence that separates us from them.  We have been watching daily to welcome their return.  Dear Husband just muttered that once the cows returned, so would the flies.  That did not deter DD.  Now with their return, she is determined that Blackie and Frances are among the group.  This herd consists of only six cows and they have yet to venture over to the fence alongside our backyard.  Seriously, last Fall, Francis would come running when she saw DD in the backyard with apples.  She would eat them out of DD's hand!  So, I am not yet convinced that this group is the same group.  Time will tell…but it is nice to have them back.
     The warmer temperatures have allowed me to get our vegetable garden started.  The French call it a "potager" which means "kitchen garden" and that is what I am determined to have this year.  I have managed to start from seed radishes, lettuce and peas.  Beans, carrots, and cucumbers have also been planted but have yet to break through the dirt.  I bought seedlings of yellow peppers and cherry tomatoes and soon they will join the garden.  In the backyard, there is a small plot built up by bricks which is sure to be a perfect location.  I am giving the seedlings another week or so in their small plants but by Easter, I hope to have all in the ground.  I had some minor success in Germany but am anxious to see how it all comes together in Belgium.  (Last night, there was a terrible wind storm in Belgium and Dear Husband was outside in the middle of the night "rescuing" my small plants.  That is love!)
     On Sunday, we had another old friend over for brunch.  I love Sunday brunch at home.  It is such an easy meal to put together and it is nice to spend a couple of hours together during the middle of the day to spend talking with family and/or friends.   Errands and chores from Saturday have been accomplished and it is still early enough to not remember that the next day will be the start of the workweek.  It is easy to have a spur-of-the-moment meal as most can be prepared earlier.
     I found some tiny melons at the local Intermarche.  I halved them and scooped out the fruit.  I then added it back but this time with some slivers of prosciutto.  I topped them off with a few arugula leaves.  By cutting a small sliver off the bottom, the tiny "bowls" stood perfectly on the plates.  It looked perfect and the sweetness of the melon accompanied by the saltiness of the ham made for a perfect combination.  It is an old, tried and true dish, but the different presentation made it all the more special.

     For the main course, I served a bacon and leek quiche that I had made a week ago and stored in the freezer.  Anytime you make a quiche, it is so easy to make two and freeze one for later. It makes a great brunch, lunch or light dinner meal.  DD has typically only wanted to eat my crab quiche and emphatically has told me that she will have no other type.  I served her a slice at brunch and given that company was in the house, she put up no fuss and ate the entire serving.  Later on, she admitted that it was fantastic and asked if I had any more.  It is the little things in life….

It is Spring Break and the luxuries of going to an International School means that the break is not one but two weeks!  We arrived in Plancoet yesterday and are already enjoying the food, the pace and the beach.  It is a bit chilly but the sun is shining.  It is the end of scallop season and today at the Dinard food market, after searching with every fishmonger in the building, we scored the final seven scallops of the day.  Tonight, we plan to saute them in butter - nothing else.  The official end to the season will be this weekend and there will be a festival at one of the local towns to celebrate Scallops!

Bacon and Crab Quiche
adapted from Martha Stewart