Monday, August 20, 2018

“We must have oysters in Cancale” our French friend exclaimed even though he doesn’t like these sea critters himself.

But mention Cancale to a Frenchman and the instant response will be ‘oysters,’ which have been cultivated in this quaint fishing village along the Northern Brittany coast in France for hundreds of years. I knew nothing about Cancale, but trusted our friend so that’s how we ended up having a lovely lunch here this summer.
Ever since I had a bad oyster eating experience when we lived in Warsaw, I’ve been skeptical of these molluscs. However, I figured we were going to be at the direct source of oysters so they had to taste good. 

In the middle of summer, Cancale is fairly packed with tourists so we had to walk along the harbour a bit until we finally found a restaurant that could serve our party of six. For lunch at La Houle, we ordered some local oysters, two orders of moules frites and our friends had one of the set menu specials plus some Brittany cider. The oysters tasted fresh and salty – just like the sea! Yum! Our total bill was 114 euros which seemed reasonable considering the coastal location.
I wish British cider tasted like this stuff in Brittany - kinda like a champagne-tasting cider.

Oyster Farming in Cancale
Cancale is known as Brittany’s oyster capital, a title we learned that is earned thanks to the high-quality plankton that grows in the bay, feeding the oysters and aiding in their reproduction. Apparently, oysters have been farmed here since Roman times; and even King Louis XIV had supplies of Cancale oysters regularly sent to his place in Versailles.

I was not prepared to see hundreds of oyster beds in the Baie de St Michel as our visit coincided with low tide. We saw tractors hauling long flat beds in areas normally covered with the sea so that the farmers could harvest the oysters. This whole new-to-me phenomena was absolutely amazing to watch. I wish I had my British wellies so I could have walked on the squishy seabed between the oyster beds. That didn’t stop our friends’ two young children from wanting to play along the exposed sand.
Apparently, Cancale’s oyster beds produce more than 15,000 tons each year! Wow!

For some of the freshest oysters, head to the nearby marché aux huîtres which is located right by the harbour. Here, the oysters are served on a plastic plate with half a lemon and cost around 5 euros for an entire dozen. In London, we’ve paid £3 (or 3 euros) per oyster (Fact: Oysters used to be served free with a pint of beer at pubs back in Victorian times)! Grab a seat along the harbour and watch the oyster farmers at work.
Across the bay, we also saw the faint outline of Mont Saint-Michel – one of France’s most recognizable landmarks, visited by more than 3 million people each year. This historic abbey is listed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, but we decided we must visit another time NOT during peak tourist season.
Walking back to our rental car, we stopped at one of the many glace shops and ordered a scoop of salted caramel ice cream. Perfection!

Visiting the Brittany coast for the first time made me want to explore it more. I’ve always heard about Brittany and its foodie options from our French friends, but this trip was the first time – and certainly not the last – to explore all the tasty goodness firsthand.
When in Cancale, buy anything with sea salt added or just a scoopful of sea salt.
Love these old stone, French houses!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Day Trip to Whitstable

Sometimes when I have a weekday off to myself, I like to hop on a train and head outside of London.

Very slowly, either solo or with my husband, I am trying to explore more of this country that we’ve called home for the last two years and will do so for the foreseeable future as well. On one such occasion, I took a train from London Victoria to the seaside town of Whitstable, about 90 minutes away. This coastal town is the perfect summer day trip from London and a foodie destination too.

Whitstable ticks all the boxes for me already.
Coffee Break
Taking a morning train means I need some caffeine as soon as I arrive into Whitstable. Located near the beach on the corner of Nelson Road and Island Wall, Windy Corner Stores & Café offers a good selection of homemade baked goods, lunches and a good flat white. Since the outdoor seats are already taken, I sit in the window seat and enjoy some people watching.

Local Art and Street Art
Being a seaside town, Whitstable seemed to have an artsy, relaxed vibe. I found some interesting local art at the Fish Slab Gallery as well as some fantastic street art as I wandered around the narrow laneways. I discovered that several of the stencil art/paste up pieces were designed by Unify, a street artist known for his work around London as well.

All About Those Oysters
Being at the seaside means eating seafood in this coastal town in Kent, of course. And Whitstable is known for its oysters and even hosts an oyster festival in July. One of the popular places to sample some local oysters is at The Forge, which is located right along the beach. I don’t even like oysters, but I tried a couple of them and fed my leftover chips to the yapping seagulls. You’ll also find oysters at the popular Whitstable Oyster Company and the pink-hued Wheelers Oyster Bar.

Walking Along the Harbour
After lunch, I decided to take a stroll along the harbor and look for the colorful bathing boxes which I had read about online. However, I quickly learned, that the seashore was filled with rocks – quite uncomfortable for sunbathing – and so typical of U.K.’s beaches. But that doesn't stop kids from playing along the beach or wading into the sea.
Along the harbour, you’ll also find the Harbour Market Whitstable which features about 35 traders selling everything from coffee and ice cream to handmade jewelry and artwork.

Whitstable Castle
Perched on the hillside, you’ll discover the Whitstable Castle, or the Tankerton Towers, as it was first called by the Pearson family who called the manor house home in the 1790s. The castle is open to the public and features a lovely, small flower garden and an afternoon tea at the café. In case you’d like to know, the castle has experienced an interesting history filled with mistresses, poverty, Rembrandt paintings and more.
Bathing boxes at Tankerton Beach
A bit along the coast, I find a plethora of the bathing boxes – each one different with its brightly colored stripes and décor. Surprisingly, these tiny beach huts sell for several thousand pounds, and there are constantly waiting lists to buy them too. Expensive real estate, but cheaper than our London flat!
At Tankerton Beach, I stumble upon a patch of hogs fennel, also known as sulphur weed, which I learn is one of Britain’s rarest plants and grows in few places, but seems to like the Whitstable coastline quite well. Who knew?

The hot sun made me thirsty so I ventured up the steep hillside and cooled off with a pint of British cider at the Royal Pub.

After an afternoon in the sun, I headed back to the Whitstable train station, about 1.5 miles away, but first treated myself to a seafood risotto dinner at Samphire in the town center. As you can see from my photos, Whitstable is a darling, pastel-hued town that is perfect for a summer break.

What is your favorite summer get away in the U.K.?

Monday, July 30, 2018

Day Trip to Tenterden

With so many European destinations on our doorstep, it’s easy to forget about exploring the actual country that we live in – the United Kingdom.

But so far this year, we’ve been trying to explore more locations just outside of London. Last month, we took a train to visit Tenterden, a small town located in the Kent district, about 2 hours southeast of London. The town was hosting the 10th Annual Real Ale & Cider Festival
at The Kent & East Sussex Railway, co-hosted by Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), a group we signed up for that supports and promotes British breweries and pubs.

Had it not been for the beer festival, we probably wouldn’t have chosen Tenterden as a destination since it no longer has a train station. We took a train from Waterloo to Headcorn, then transferred to a local country bus, which stopped close enough to our hotel for the night. We originally planned to take a taxi from the station but learned we would have to wait awhile since we didn’t pre-book and it would cost £22. Yikes! So we figured out the local bus, which runs every 30 minutes – give or take 10 minutes, and took a bus from Headcorn to the London Beach Country Hotel. Cost £3 for two people.

Technically Stayed Overnight  
Okay, so we technically did this journey as an overnight trip, but it easily could be done as a day trip. Our cozy hotel room featured a small balcony, so we brought up a drink from the bar and enjoyed a Kentish countryside sunset. In the morning, we both had a full English breakfast before we set out for the day.
Local Cider & Beer
For the main event on Saturday, we walked about 1.5 miles from our hotel directly to the Kent & East Sussex Railway. Being CAMRA members, our festival admission was free. The event featured more than 50 British beers and 22 ciders. Some of the beers we enjoyed were from: Signature Brew (London), G2 Brewing (Ashford), Kent Brewery (Birling), York Brewery (York) and Kentish Pip Craft Cider (Canterbury). The queues were never that long and the atmosphere was quite jovial and relaxed.

Rolling On the Old Railway
Although Tenterden no longer has an intra-country railway, it does have an old-fashioned steam railway line that travels from Tenterden to Bodiam, a 45-minute journey. Channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain (who had sadly died recently) with a festival beer in hand, I boarded the wooden carriage with plush velvet-lined seats and soaked up the Kentish countryside scenery.  

Hubby and I absolutely loved this train journey and would highly recommend it as a fun day out! The KESR also runs train outings that feature local beers as well as dining options.

A Classic English Castle
Set in the heart of an historic landscape, the 14th-century, moated Bodiam Castle is considered “one of Britain's most picturesque and romantic ancient monuments.” Just a 5-minute walk from the Bodiam station, we decided to take a few photos of this National Trust property, so we wouldn’t miss out on the next train.

Traditional Morris Dancing
Back at the beer festival, we experienced an unexpected highlight – traditional Morris dancing! Morris dance is a form of English folk dancing based on rhythmic stepping and choreographed routines. The dancers usually wear bells on their shins and use sticks and handkerchiefs as part of the dancing.

The earliest known and surviving written mention of Morris dance, dates to 1448, and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London.

Getting out of the city for a day meant we got to explore a new part of the UK, try some tasty beers, ride an old steam train, see a historic castle and more. I can only wonder what will happen on our next adventure.

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