Friday, September 26, 2014

On the day we set out for Vaison-la-Romaine, everything started out terribly.

We skipped breakfast and hoped to find something in this busy Provençal town of 6,200 people. We got lost. We tried to find parking. I tried to follow the GPS and direct hubby around the crowded, narrow streets. We crossed over the historic, single-arched, Roman bridge that spans over the Ouvèze river and is still in use.
Difficult to enjoy historic sites when everyone is angry!
Jason was angry. I was angry, and our grandparents were hungry and annoyed too.

Tuesday was market day in Vaison-la-Romaine, and the town was already packed before 10 a.m. Jason and I quickly realized that we would not be walking around this market very easily, especially with our grandparents.

So we set out to meet up with my blogging friend, Barbara of Cuisine de Provence, nearby. Barbara and I had met during one of her trips to Istanbul where we both connected with Claudia of A Seasonal Cook in Turkey. Blogging really is a small world once you start making connections.
During the busy season, Barbara teaches cooking classes in her home three to four times a week!  She’s even ranked as the town’s number two attraction on Tripadvisor! I was thrilled she had time to take me around the market and then prepare lunch for us.

Though everyone was still a bit cranky, I left hubby and the grandparents with Barbara’s kind husband, Robert, and then the two of us returned to the market. We wouldn’t be gone long.

Vaison-la-Romaine is picturesque with its winding streets and ancient Roman ruins that seem to sprout up everywhere you turn. Oops, I just bumped into a 6,000-seat Roman Theater. Oh, and there’s some marble columns, excavated houses and baths over there. I’d love to return here and explore some more since we didn’t have time during this trip.
While navigating the busy streets like a pro, Barbara gave me a whirlwind tour through the town’s Tuesday market. The market had many similar stalls as the one we had visited in L’Isle sur la Sorgue two days earlier. That wasn’t a surprise given the two towns are only about an hour apart.
Still, I love a good market, and I was happy to be visiting this one with a local!
Several years ago, Barbara and her husband decided to buy a house and retire in the Provençal hills and that’s where they have been living ever since. Now, Barbara teaches the cooking classes in their home while her husband has time to golf. During the off-season, they are able to travel around the world.

At the market, we popped into a colorful patisserie called Peyrerol where I ended up buying a box of delicious French macaroons. I also almost bought a caramel beurre sale ice cream cone!
Neither of us needed much as Barbara had the lunch pretty much prepared, and we still had leftover market supplies from Sunday. I did buy two jars of lavender honey and a pretty Provençal tablecloth from a stall that Barbara recommended.
Now, it was time to head home and eat!

Our first course was a chilled, roasted red pepper soup along with glasses of French rosé. Both were welcome respites from the day’s hot temperature. And yes, ice cubes are plentifully used when drinking rosé! Also, Grandma liked the soup so much that she even asked Barbara for the recipe!
Our second course was a chicken dish cooked with local sundried tomatoes, basil and toasted pine nuts, followed by a rustic apricot tart. Everything was delicious and featured seasonal ingredients, and even the grandparents were finally happy! The busy market really would’ve been too much walking for them. 
The six of us, four of whom were expats, had plenty of stories to share over our French cheese course. I even had a coveted look at Barbara’s vast pottery collection and told hubby that I could stand to collect much more!
Though the day started off badly, I’m very thankful we had a happy ending in Vaison-la-Romaine thanks to Barbara and her husband!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Even before I was planning for our summer road trip in France, I was dreaming of the rolling Provençal hilltops swathed in lovely shades of lavender.

I blame all those hours on Pinterest for those dreams!

Perhaps one of the most famous lavender fields in Provence lies in front of the 12th-century Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey (French: Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque), still home to a small group of Cistercian monks. The abbey, located near the hilltop village of Gordes, is one of those iconic images of Provence and we planned to see it in person.

After spending a few hours at the Sunday market in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, we arrived at the abbey with the hot mid-day sun radiating off the weathered gray stones and surrounding fields. What I first thought was blooming lavender in front of the abbey was actually a field of blueish-purple statice, which usually is used as a dried flower for arrangements. I couldn’t figure out why the monks would use the statice as well. Any ideas?
Well, unfortunately, we were a bit too early in the season to see the infamous lavender in full bloom. I later learned the lavender usually starts blooming at the end of June and continues through August, when the flowers are harvested. We tried our best to plan our trip with the grandparents, knowing that July and August would have been too hot for them for much sightseeing.
Still, we enjoyed walking around the grounds of the Sénanque monastery, which was first established in 1148. Tours inside the abbey and its cloisters are possible, but must be reserved in advance. It’s also possible to stay at the abbey for a spiritual retreat.
Inside the abbey’s store, you can buy lavender oil, lavender honey, lavender soaps, lavender photos and French olive oil as well as religious objects and musical CDs. The monks who live at Sénanque grow the lavender and tend honey bees for their livelihood. Grandma and I both bought a few things before we continued on our way.

We followed the winding road north of the abbey back to Mazan. The roads were lined with heavily laden cherry trees. We may have stopped to pluck a few cherries before we made an unplanned stop at a nearby winery.
Even though we missed seeing the true lavender season, the historical abbey is well worth a stop on your trip in Provence.
As you can see here, the lavender is almost ready to bloom!

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque 
Near Gordes, France

Monday, September 22, 2014

This summer, I’ve tried dozens of new-to-me restaurants and returned to a few favorites in Warsaw.

The restaurant scene here in Poland’s capital city continues to impress me. New restaurants seem to sprout up faster than weeds. I cannot even keep up with all the new openings, but I do try my best with the help of websites like Warsaw Foodie. Restaurants also seem to close quicker than usual, sometimes after only two or three months, compared to other places we’ve lived.

In July, a new restaurant, La Maison Gourmand, opened just a few blocks away from my favorite market in Warsaw. Since its opening, I have visited this restaurant at least six times for coffee, lunch, afternoon wine with girlfriends and dinner and generally like what I see so far.
The menu is more international than French, which is confusing given the restaurant’s name. The lunch menu consists of mainly snacks and salads that are French, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Greek inspired. You’ll find hummus, tzatziki, a Turkish-like eggplant salad, labneh-stuffed peppers, ratatouille, a meat and cheese board, etc. Some of the mezes like peppers and eggplant salad were good while the hummus and tabbouleh could have used a bit more seasoning. The Mezze Discovery platter is the best way to sample a bit of everything.

My two favorite dishes have been salads. The La Maison Salad contains mixed greens, fried pancetta and a poached egg. Not exactly a classic French frisée salad with lardons, but close enough. Delicious! The Italian Burrata-Tomato Salad also was a hit, though the tomato sorbet was a bit icy.
The dinner menu listed a hamburger, several steaks and pasta. I was hoping for mussels cooked in white wine - another classic French dish. My friend ordered the burger, which he said was good (Warsaw is obsessed with burgers), while I had the tomato salad, which contained a very generous serving of colorful tomatoes.

To me, La Maison’s menu is too chaotic. If you have a French name, wouldn’t it be better to serve French food? Le sigh!

But the Frenchness does stand out in the dessert case and on the breakfast menu, where you will find pain au chocolat, plain croissants, brioche, madeleines, macaroons and more. For dessert, I can recommend the traditional Opera cake as well as the framboise tart.
And there’s a wonderful selection of homemade ice creams and ice cream sundaes on the menu!
On a recent visit with girlfriends, we were all very pleased with our coffee drinks, including a real iced coffee actually served with ice cubes (ice is still rare in Poland…where you usually only get like two or three ice cubes), and the yummy croissants. The manager was playful and chatty with us, and his English also was excellent.
The ice cream counter and where you can buy colorful French macaroons at La Maison.
So rather than dinner, La Maison has become a happy place for me to hang out with girlfriends over a caffé latte in the morning or a glass of wine and some fromage in the afternoon. Maybe someday, I’ll even invite my husband.
La Maison Gourmand
ul. Chłodna 15
phone: 22 652 36 60

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Sunday market in the small Provençal town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue is a foodie’s dream.

The winding, narrow streets are crowded with possibly 100 stalls selling all kinds of locally-produced breads, olives, cheeses, pastries, fruits, vegetables, soaps, fabrics and more. Our grandparents weren’t as thrilled about visiting a market as I was, but as you know, visiting a market is a must for us when we travel! I love the sights, the smells and the people at markets!

L’Isle sur la Sorgue, located about 30 minutes east of Avignon, is situated on an island along the Sorgue River. Since the Sunday market seems to be world famous, parking in this small town is a problem. We arrived shortly before 10 a.m. and found an open parking lot along the riverfront near one of the old water wheels. (Later on, we saw cars parked as far as 2-3 kilometers outside the town.) The market does open at 9 a.m., so you could arrive even earlier to avoid some of the crowds and general mayhem.
One of the moss-covered water wheels in L'Isle sur la Sorgue.
Since our grandparents are picky eaters, we decided to cook dinner one night at our lovely bed and breakfast, Auberge du Vin, located 30-minutes away in the countryside by Mazan. So we were on the hunt for Provençal goodies that we could snack on for the next few days and eat for dinner.

We started with the cheese stalls where we sampled several different kinds of French cheeses. We ended up buying two semi-hard cheeses and two wheels of soft cheeses, including one runny one wrapped in dried leaves. Delicious! (Word of caution: only buy cheese from a stall where the prices are shown as there are some imposters out there that will overcharge you big time.)
What pairs well with cheese? Why, French saucisson (cured sausages), of course! Mmm…more pork!

And then we needed to buy some olives to later enjoy with our glasses of French rosé before dinner. Again, sampling is mandatory!

Sometimes, we found it a bit difficult to thoroughly enjoy the market and keep track of the grandparents at the same time. The market was VERY busy, and Grandpa tended to wander off to the next stall before we were done at the previous one. We did enjoy traveling with them through France, but I often was worried about them too. When it’s just my husband and me, I don’t need to worry about him. In fact, I'm usually the one wandering off  to take photos.

At the market, we found the prettiest baskets of scrumptious summer strawberries, and the best melons I’ve ever tasted in my life! These sweet melons were juicy and had the most heavenly fragrance! We later learned the melons are a French heirloom variety from nearby towns of Sarrians and Cavaillon, which are known for their melons.
Of course, Provence is known for its lavender too! The market featured lavender soaps, lotions, sachet bags and more. Grandma and I purchased several of the soaps and scented bags to take home.
By noon, the food market was dying down. We had a difficult time finding a stall that still had any bread left! The market at L’Isle sur la Sorgue also has a large antiques section, which stays open later, but we didn’t even venture there.

We left L’Isle sur la Sorgue with a rental car full of French goodies, more than what we could possibly even eat over the next couple of days.

Have you been to Provence? If so, which town had your favorite market?
Pretty Provençal pottery, but check the label on the bottom of each piece. Most of the ones I saw were made either in Italy or Spain!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

One of the highlights of our summer road trip in France was drinking wine with our grandparents. Grandpa is 91 and Grandma is 85!

Jason and I can only hope to be as fortunate as them traveling and enjoying wine around the world at their age!

One of grandpa’s “last” wishes was to visit Châteauneuf-du-Pape and drink as much of this world famous wine as he could surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye could see. We set out to make that wish come true!

I organized a private, half-day wine tasting and tour through our kind bed and breakfast owner, Linda Field of Auberge du Vin. Linda, a longtime certified educator through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, started out by explaining some of the basics of French wines and the French wine regions or appellations. 
Our first stop was at the family-run estate of Domaine de Beaurenard, which has been making wine in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for seven generations. The estate covers 32 hectares in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and 25 hectares in the Côtes du Rhône Villages Rasteau AOC area. Linda gave us a personal tour of the winery itself, and then we tasted several of the Beaurenard wines, including an uncommon white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Grandma loved this white wine so much we had to buy a bottle at the end our tasting.
I also couldn’t help but covet the older bottles of Pope’s Château Châteauneuf-du-Pape covered in a thick layer of dust behind a glass-enclosed wine cellar. I first learned about this famous wine when I was working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in NYC, and it’s been served in all the restaurants I worked at since then. Unfortunately in the U.S., a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape isn’t very affordable. I wish we had driven our own car to France so we could have bought many cases of this wine!
Next, we headed to the ruins of the Pope’s Château, a grand summer residence originally built in 1333 during the period of the Avignon Papacy, atop a hill. The pope certainly had a lovely view over the Rhône Valley. We did a quick peak around and then slowly made our way down some rocky stairs, which was a little difficult for our grandparents.
Then, we participated in another wine tasting at Cave du Verger des Papes, a wine cellar located underneath the old château. Again, we tasted another dry, white and a couple of fruity red Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. We learned none of the white wines are ever exported out of France, so if you try one and like it, buy a bottle like we did!
I really love the Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wines!
After spending our morning sampling wines, it was time for lunch at Hostellerie du Château Fines Roches, a fancy Michelin-Guide-recommended restaurant and castle-looking hotel located just outside of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The restaurant features a panoramic terrace overlooking the surrounding lush vineyards. I’d say you found paradise, albeit slightly expensive, if you dined here! From this point, we were on our own.
Dining at a "castle" surrounded by French vineyards - what's not to like?
Our grandparents enjoyed the lovely view and more wine, but not the food as much as we did. As the trip progressed, we discovered they simply did not like French food, AT ALL, which shocked me. However, hubby and I both love French food, and I hope we still do when we are their age!
At least, hubby's grandparents liked the French wine!
The chef’s amuse-bouche featured “lollipop-like” foie gras coated in praline pieces. Pure decadence!
Our grandparents both ordered a lobster dish (although they just wanted soup), hubby had a terrine of guinea fowl with a red beet sorbet and I had the best dish – two poached eggs smothered in summer French truffles!
For dessert, I couldn’t resist trying a elegantly-plated torte featuring French strawberries and pistachio crémeux, served with a strawberry sorbet. To me, this dessert represented summer on a plate! Grandpa (finally) enjoyed his vanilla panna cotta too!
I love dessert!
All of this fancy food comes at a price, about 50 euros per person, including a 2012 bottle of local Domaine de Nalys white wine. We don’t mind splurging now and then especially for a decadent meal like this one!

If you’re traveling with elderly grandparents like we did, I highly recommend doing a private wine tasting tour, which allowed us to travel at our own pace. In the end, Grandpa was happy because he finally had his wish come true of drinking Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines in France; and that’s all that matters!

Sigh! More vineyards near Châteauneuf-du-Pape.