A Kentucky Sampler: Lexington Softball, Fiber, and Bourbon and The Bourbon Trail

Lexington Softball, Fiber, and Bourbon

We had journeyed down through Indiana and Ohio to Kentucky in the pouring rain and, after locating the Campbell House Hotel in Lexington, we stayed put until the next day’s fiber festival. We were surprised to find players, coaches, trainers, and supporters in blue and orange draped over all the couches and chairs in lobbies, lounges, and hallways. Our local university team had travelled to Lexington for a softball tournament and, like us, had come in from the rain. My rain washed University windbreaker fit right in with the color scheme. The roads and parking lot were covered in deep puddles and, after a harrowing drive with cars and trucks creating great blinding clouds from the water slicked pavement, we went into hang out mode too.

The hotel was comfortable, but older and not as soundproof as one would have liked with hordes of college students joining us. The athletes and their entourage were all quite nice and we enjoyed chatting with them, promising to go cheer them on if we were still in town when they played their next game. The guest rooms were painted a very dark charcoal, almost black, so although it was comfortable physically it did not seem all that inviting a room for kicking back and relaxing. It did pass my chair test though, specifically having a comfortable chair in the room to claim as my own (in addition to the desk chair that is always claimed by the spouse). Good thing too, with every other seating surface in the hotel claimed by the team, it was the only seat available.

We did not have the fortitude to seek out local dining establishments. Fortunately, our dinner at the restaurant was quite nice and the staff were very engaging. Nibbling on bourbon glazed salmon and surrounded by displays of bourbon bottles, we got into discussions with the staff about what makes bourbon bourbon. The servers did not know, but one volunteered to run to the bar and find out from the bartender. She returned, saying that the bartender had taken a course on bourbon and had rattled off more than a messenger could possibly remember. After being asked for a two sentence answer, the bartender had summed it up with: it has to be more than 51% corn based, aged in oak barrels, and made in America. More research was needed and between Google and Wikipedia we got some answers. The next morning we had the same servers for breakfast and updated them on our bourbon research.

As it was the day before, all lobbies, lounges, hallways, and even the restaurant were filled with athletes, coaches and supporters. Wishing the players good luck in their game on our way out, we set out for the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival and Bluegrass Classic Stock Dog Trials.

See Beasts of Fiber for a description of the fiber festival and dog trials.

Plans to tour more of Lexington were put aside, we decided to journey on towards Louisville after our time at the fiber festival and dog trials. Things we could have done in Lexington–time, weather, and energy permitting–included a visit to Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood home and Ashland, Henry Clay’s plantation. But our stay there was brief and my impressions of the city are incomplete. I will say that, with its proximity to Cincinnati, the traffic congestion seemed out of proportion to a small city. I did not enjoy driving into and around the town and was happy to hit some peaceful country roads after the festival before returning to the Interstate for our journey to Louisville. In fairness, it is never easy to drive over wet roads in a pouring rain while listening for Doris, my Google Maps voice, to guide me through unfamiliar roads.

The Bourbon Trail

When pulling off the Interstate for lunch we happened to see tourist signs for distilleries and, as we were not in a hurry, it seemed like the Kentucky thing to do. When in Rome or, in our case, when on the Bourbon Trail…

Searching Google Maps after lunch we found a distillery that looked interesting and was not too far from the restaurant. It was interesting too, but it was not operational. Or if operational, it was not in any shape to receive visitors in spite of the sign stating it was reopening in spring of 2016. The road to the Castle & Key Distillery was a lovely windy forested road dropping down to a riverbed in Millville, a peaceful diversion from the fast paced Interstate and well worth the drive in spite of the facility not being open to the public. The complex was surprisingly large, beautiful, and impressive, although some of the 19th century buildings appeared to be crumbling with missing windows and vines were invading the masonry. It was a rewarding side-trip but it did not provide us with the requisite Kentucky distillery experience. Google Maps to the rescue, there was another distillery further up the road. We followed the windy and forested creekside road to our next destination, the appropriately named town of Versailles. How perfectly fitting to have bourbon in Versailles.

Woodford Reserve Distillery was the complete opposite of the Castle & Key, after being the only souls in sight at the first distillery we were eclipsed by the the crowd at the next. Parking lots overflowed their borders and stretched out into muddy fields. When we pulled into the complex, multiple flag men directed us away from the main parking lots downhill to a churned up, sloped, and mud-sloppy area to park; fortunately my faithful steed Hubie had all wheel drive to resist the tire grabbing muck. We parked, gingerly made our way up the slick slope, and were trying to find our bearings when one of the flag men hailed us, directing us to the visitor center and warning us to watch out for all the buses and their crazed drivers. And buses there were, several tour buses making the Bourbon Trail circuit joined by the distillery’s own tour buses. Streams of people were loading onto and off of these buses, following the directions of their barking tour guides. It was reminiscent of the border collies herding sheep at the dog trials we had seen earlier in the day. Do they hold tour guide trials?  These guides would have done well in competition, their tourists moved with purpose and alacrity.

We made our way through the crowds in the visitor center to the gift shop and asked the cashier where we might be able to taste the bourbon. We were directed to one of those cordoned, switchback-queues designed to hold long lines of people in a compact space and queued our way up to one of the several clerks behind a long counter. Although it was mid-afternoon, tours for the day, we were told, were sold out but tasting was available for $8 per person. Fine, I was not that interested in tasting–I have tried various spirits in the past and am not a fan of whiskey–but $8 for the spouse to taste was an acceptable price to pay for the experience. Or it would have been acceptable had they not insisted that I pay $8 too, regardless of the fact that I was not tasting. We declined. As we turned to leave, the clerk offered us a bourbon chocolate so our time in line was not entirely wasted. In a last ditch effort to have a bourbon experience, we returned to the gift shop to see if they had any smallish sized bottles for an equivalent $16 to pick up and taste on our own. The gift shop had only big and bigger bottles. Empty handed we once again pushed our way through the crowds to find our way back to the mud-slicked hillside parking. We serpentined our way out of the visitor center only to be delayed by another throng being herded efficiently onto a distillery-owned bus for the next tour.

As lovely as the setting was, it seemed set up to cram as many people as possible through the distillery experience while separating the tourist dollar from the tourist. I said to the spouse, “This is a boozeneyland.” It reminded me of the most touristy wineries in Napa Valley; those more interested in being a top tourist attraction than in sharing a love of their world class winemaking.

Our friendly flagman suggested that we take care walking down the hill to our car and that we make our way to the exit by finding a path going down rather than up. Good advice, the once grass covered slope was a slick muddy mess from the many tires passing over the rain soaked hillside. I backed out cautiously, mindful of not getting stuck in the mud or slipping into the SUV emblazoned with NRA stickers that was parked in front of me. As I guided Hubie through the most firm looking ground I could find to the exit road, we wondered if the Bourbon Trail had adopted the worst of the Napa Valley-type tourism. Leaving Boozeneyland and Bourbon Trail behind, we wound our way back country roads to the Interstate having not tasted a drop.

Continuing on our way to Louisville we saw a tourist sign for a distillery and historical site in Frankfort. We dithered for a moment and, given that we were not on a schedule and had no place we had to be, we brought up Buffalo Trace Distillery on Google Maps and followed voice instructions from Doris over the river and through the woods. We dropped down a small drive to a huge brick complex alongside the river and found our way to a paved parking lot with plenty of spaces available. The rich, almost smokey smell of fermenting spirits hung in the air as we began our walk around the buildings. A little table beneath an umbrella displayed a “check-in here” sign and we held onto our wallets and prepared for the worst. Two very friendly ladies invited us to join an hour-long tour that was just starting. Mentally seeing dollar signs, we declined and asked if it was possible to just taste. She responded that it was and asked how many tickets we needed; our response was not “two please” but “how much?” Surprisingly, there was no charge. The tickets had a later time, giving us about twenty minutes to wander about, but the price was right.

The tasting area was on the second floor of the visitor’s center and had three large bars. One tour group was just finishing and another arriving at the main bar and we prepared for another crush of bourbon breathed humanity. We showed our tickets and were directed to the third bar where a smaller but ever so lively group was tasting. When it was our turn, we were surprised to find we were the only two scheduled at that time and, best of all, were hosted by a very friendly and knowledgable bartender. He confirmed our newly acquired Wikipedia knowledge and added a lot to it.

Although the wafting smell of whisky throughout the grounds was heavenly, I do not have a taste for whisky nor do I have a desire to acquire one, but this was Kentucky and we were in an award winning distillery. Our first taste was of the basic Buffalo Trace bourbon, aged 8 years. We were instructed to taste the bourbon in 3 sips: the first sip would taste strongly of alcohol, the second also of alcohol but with a bit of flavor coming through, the third sip would be the tasting sip. He was right, the first sip knocked me over with a boozy blast. Either I had killed my tongue by the third sip, or there was truth to what he said, and it did seem more flavorful. Then he had us taste a sipping bourbon, aged 10 or more years, and it was much smoother to my exploded taste buds. We concluded with a bourbon cream, basically heavy cream and bourbon, to which he added a bit of old style root beer for a boozy adults only root beer float. Our parting taste was a bourbon chocolate; now that I liked at first bite and definitely did not need three nips to get there.

This time our trip to the gift shop was not restricted to tiny bottles and we left with full bottles of the basic bourbon, the sipping bourbon, and a box of bourbon chocolates. No doubt the spouse is envisioning sipping fine bourbon by the fireside, imagebut after eating those chocolates and having the nice bourbon glazed salmon the night before, I am envisioning culinary explorations. I may have to wait a year or so before I can dip in without the spouse protesting the use of fine bourbon for the pot, but the staff assured me that bourbon lasts indefinitely. Eventually his interest will wane or his back will be turned; sooner or later the bottles will gather dust in the bar and be ready for a trip to the kitchen.

I may never develop a taste for bourbon in my glass, but I could certainly learn to love it on my plate.

Next up: A Kentucky Sampler: B&B Guns, Louisville, and Five is the New Ten


Green Garlic and Purple Asparagus

Eating seasonably is a bit challenging in a colder climate. Even in the coldest months, it seemed some part of California was always growing something when I lived there. Here, the earth sleeps and our few and far between (indoor) farmers markets go back to our roots: carrots, potatoes, beets, and turnips. The indoor markets are an enjoyable winter outing, but they are nothing like the outdoor summer markets for quantity and variety. Rain or shine, frost or sun, wind or calm, our outdoor farmers markets start in May no matter the weather. March and April shyly introduce the spring, the joy of bright yellow daffodils is followed by the bursting forth of multi-colored tulips and the gradual greening of the trees as the earth awakens. Those early months of growth produce some lovely blooms but very little in the way of food. May is not a month of abundance, not yet.

The first few weeks of the farmers’ market in the spring is a promise of food. Stalls are filled with little vegetable seedlings and tiny herb plants in small pots and packs. Farmers who travel a distance from further south, or farmers with green houses and covers for their plants in the field, have a few early greens. More often than not, vendors tables are loaded with nothing but baby plants that will be something one day but not this day. But there is one thing that shows up early and trumpets spring as loudly as the daffodils: asparagus. Like daffodils, asparagus just appears one day and disappears just as quickly. From one week to the next, just when I am chiding myself for being in an asparagus rut, it vanishes. Early risers might find the last little bit in that week of disappearing, but by the time I come along there is not a stalk to be found anywhere. And there will not be a stalk to be found for the remainder of the year, not until the seasons turn and spring begins again will we once again see that precious spring asparagus. Last week, opening day, I picked up most of my herb plants and discovered some asparagus as I was paying for the herbs. When cooked, it was unlike anything that had been showing up at grocery stores, young and tender and such a mild fresh flavor. I knew I would return for more, and keep returning until it vanishes.

Saturday the temperatures dropped, the wind blew in grand gusts, and dark clouds gathered but I had a mission and would not be deterred. With wool socks, sweater, woolly shawl wrapped about the neck, and jacket over it all I braved the graduation weekend traffic and the Midwest so-you-thought-it-was-spring weather for my quest: asparagus and three types of herb plants still missing from my garden, oregano, marjoram, and tarragon. We needed more of that spring asparagus and the market is the only place to get it. There was no choice but to bundle up and to market, to market, jiggidy jig.

Thankfully the vendor still had plenty of asparagus when I arrived, and this week he had beautiful purple ones. Although he had none of the herbs I was looking for, he did
have some bright green, fresh sprigs of green garlic that found their way into my imagemarket basket.

My herb quest required a bit more effort. I had simply forgotten to get oregano last week and fortunately it was not difficult to find, but for some reason tarragon and marjoram are not common in these here parts. We walked up and down every aisle at a brisk pace to keep warm, witnessing one pop-up tent get picked up by the wind, fly over the market, and landing with a crash into the street. Vendors shivered, bundled up in whatever they could find, and if the little pots of herbs, vegetables, and bedding plants could speak I am sure they would have been saying, “You have got to be kidding me.” Those baby plants wanted to get out of the cold wind and back to the cozy greenhouse from whence they came. At the last table in the last aisle we saw a small display of seedling pots, a little cluster of marjoram and a little sprig of tarragon were waiting for a new home.

The outdoor farmers’ market in the first few weeks is exciting because–although it lacks the abundance of produce, number of vendors, and large crowds of the summer and early fall–it is one of the early signs of a world awakening. Soon, very soon, fresh food grown locally will be available once again. Herb plants will shoot up and fill out into great globes, little fresh leaves ready to clip when needed in the kitchen. The long dark winter of dried herbs, aging root vegetables, hothouse greens, and under-ripened produce brought from thousands of miles away is coming to an end. Eating seasonably will become not just easier but desirable as well.

What We Cooked

Saturday night we simply steamed the asparagus. Interestingly, the purple asparagus when cooked looks a bit darker than the green but loses most of the purple color.

Tonight the plan is to roughly follow a green garlic pasta recipe from a site that the Google search turned up, Serious Eats. Apparently the recipe is based on an Alice Waters recipe using regular globe garlic. I plan to add some pan seared asparagus and sautéed shrimp. The recipe calls for parsley, hope there is enough parsley in my newly planted herb garden in spite of recent torrential thunderstorms followed by high winds and a cold snap. In other words, our typical Midwest spring weather.

Spaghetti and Green Garlic


Brownies Up Our Way

Late Victorian and early Edwardian mannerisms found fertile soil and took root in my ever so proper Grandmother. When I see pictures of an erect Queen Elizabeth at a public occasion with hat, handbag, and white gloves I cannot help but think of my grandmother. In her day, she could have told the queen a thing or two about social duties and deportment; lessons my mother and aunt learned but did not always trouble to follow. The lessons that did stick came from the kitchen. Some of my mother’s core recipes that were passed on to me hark back to my grandmother, how to make gravy, how to make stuffing for turkey, how to make pie crust, how to make a proper cup of tea, and the one that has ruined me for anything else going by this name, how to to make brownies. As my grandmother epitomized proper, so did her recipes.

We are not alone in inheriting this-is-the-way-it-is-done convictions. As my generation married into families with their own perceptions of the right and proper way to do things, I witnessed the sometimes bumpy merging of family traditions at holidays; other families inherited a grandmother’s proper way around the kitchen. One Thanksgiving a sister-in-law jumped into the midst of the last minute kitchen to table melee to make the gravy. One of my brothers exclaimed in horror, “What are you doing!? But you are not making a roux!” She insisted with equal conviction that what she was doing was how one made gravy. The only way for one to make gravy.

While Grandma was very definite about the right and proper way to go about things, she was unfortunately blessed with boisterous and–in her estimation–barely civilized heathen for grandchildren; no doubt the result of the questionable genes introduced to the line by her son-in-laws. One or the other of us was always falling short of following Grandma’s code of conduct. She could put the full weight of a harrumph into the word “well” and that “well” was often followed by “…up our way”. If we had not met them, we would have thought ourselves a wild and uncivilized tribe in the untamed remote reaches of the continent in comparison to our prim and proper Canadian cousins to the north. It helped us to know that when she returned from visiting us in California she would take umbrage at something one of my cousins did or said and remark, “Well, down our way…” Prim and proper is not the way of a child or adolescent, we little hooligans were doomed to be a shy of perfection in Grandma’s eyes.

Grandma had a short fuse, not a short fuse to anger but a short fuse to indignation. Some of us tried to tread cautiously while others gleefully had a match at the ready. My dad had some good rounds with his mother-in-law but my uncle, her son-in-law, always knew exactly what to say to ignite her. When that fuse was lit, one could see a physical transformation as she tightened up from tip to toe at the impropriety of it all followed by a resounding “well…” Others prepared to duck and cover when, like an expert fly fisherman, he wound up and threw out a line. She would snap that bait and get reeled in, time after time after time.

My younger brother also was adroit in the sport of grandma baiting. On one particularly long trip, when he was old enough to be a cheeky high schooler but too young to drive, I was recruited to drive my younger brother and grandmother to visit my eldest brother in Santa Barbara. Grandma wanted to visit Hearst Castle along the way, and wouldn’t it be so lovely to drive down the coast. It was lovely idea, and it would have been a lovely drive were it not for the epic battle taking place in the car. Before we had even reached the coast they were in full swing, grandma–hackles at full rise–giving as good as she got. The coastal highway is breathtaking, it certainly took my breath away as I negotiated switch back turns above high cliffs plummeting from road to the sea. I silently drove white knuckled through the dramatic scenery while barbs and retorts and “wells”s bounced back and forth between front and back seats, neither of them noticing the deep green coastal forests, sparkling seas, and narrow gray road snaking precipitously along the edge of rocky cliffs.

With every nerve spent trying to tune out the din and get the combatants to safety, I finally pulled the car to a halt at San Simeon. We walked up to the kiosk to get our tickets and found, without reservations, that the only tour available was of the ground floor and outer buildings. Grandma had seen the ground floor and outer buildings, years earlier, and they were of no interest to her. Her heart was set on seeing the upstairs rooms but–in spite of the ticket clerk being treated to the sight of my grandmother drawing herself up from tip to toe in a full display of indignant disappointment–that was not an option. I suggested we go ahead and enjoy the tour that was available and in return got one of her “well” responses, “Well, I will just wait in the car.” We did not see Hearst Castle that day. I got back behind the wheel and the others returned to their seats and, as if we had not stopped, continued with their snarling and hissing like dogs and cats, miles behind us and miles to go.

We finally arrived safely in Santa Barbara. To my consternation, that night my younger brother got to stay with my elder brother and attend a college party. I got to stay in a motel room with Grandma and watch Lawrence Welk. Given a choice between a college party or Lawrence Welk with Grandma, there is no contest as to where I D749would have chosen to be at that moment. Bless her heart, looking back at it now I think she meant it as a special and rare one-on-one time. Truth be told, we did get on quite well that night and had a proper chat. I was too tired to show my disappointment in missing out on a college party and–given that her goat had been captured and penned quite enough for one day–there were no “well” moments that evening. And in retrospect it was a pleasant night I can look back upon fondly.

This is not to imply I was a favorite by any means, I often lit Grandma’s indignation fuse and was the frequent target of “well”s delivered in my direction. Among my cousins and brothers, only one was up to her standards and that one, in my opinion, was the one least likely to wear that badge. But wear it he did, and nothing that little hooligan did or said put a tarnish on it. I thought the gig was up when we took Grandma to visit him at his college apartment. He was in the midst of his hippie phase, a phase that put a lot of emphasis on free spirited personal freedoms but none on bathing, cleanliness, and housekeeping. Grandma was about to get an eyeful. Surely she would come face to face with reality and finally see him for the unkempt, disappointingly short of standards grandson he was. I waited for it, and sure enough we did get a “well” moment, but it was not the “well” moment I expected when she said, “Well, our Michael’s roommates certainly are slobs.”

Aside from “Our Michael,” each of her grandchildren were cause for consternation and each of us have our own deep well of memories about our encounters with our grandmother. Ever so proper Grandma had her strong opinions, expectations, and disappointments triggering many a “well” moment, but she did love us dearly and she did succeed in instilling some sense of propriety in me. I learned enough to have great shame when I lazily pour boiling water over a teabag in a mug rather than brewing it in a preheated teapot, but to this day I maintain the proper way to drink tea is in fine porcelain as she always did “up her way.” I am offended and tighten up from tip to toe when offered a cup of tea in a clunky chunky coffee mug. It is just not proper. And to this day, the only proper way to bake brownies is to bake them like Grandma’s: rich, moist, and chewy.


Grandma’s Proper Recipes

Brownies Up Our Way

Preheat oven to 325 F

2 squares of chocolate*
1 cube of margarine*

1 Cup of sugar

Beat in:
2 eggs, one at a time until glossy
1/2 Tsp vanilla
1 Cup Flour

Add: Nuts (optional)

Pour into greased square pan and bake 20-25 minutes

*This was the old Baker’s brand squares of unsweetened chocolate. 1 square is roughly an ounce. Gourmet chocolate was not a thing back then, and I am not inclined to stick with tradition for the sake of sticking with tradition.

** Yuck margarine. My mother always cooked with it unless she was making buttery shortbread. A cube of margarine is how they referred to a stick of margarine back in the day. I relished saying “I told you so” to my mother when science proved me right, that hydrogenated margarine was bad for you. Replace with a stick of butter, roughly 1/2 cup or 8 Tbsp.

Pie crust Up Our Way

3 Cups flour
1/2 Tsp salt
Pinch of baking powder
1/2 Cup shortening or margarine
1/2 Cup cold water

Sift first 3 ingredients. Cut in shortening until fairly fine. Add water in hole in center, stir with fork. (DO NOT OVER HANDLE)
Roll and cut as needed.

I hate to think what Grandma would say if she saw me reaching for a package of pre-made crust in the grocery store. It would be “well” worthy.

Stuffing Up Our Way

Brown bulk sausage and set aside. Sauté celery and onion. Mix sausage, celery, onion, and sage with bread cubes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Grandma cooked the stuffing in the bird, she did not cook the stuffing on the side, and somehow we all lived to tell.

A Proper Cup of Tea Up Our Way

Put tea kettle on to boil, before water reaches boiling point, pour hot water into teapot. When tea kettle just reaches a boil, empty teapot, add tea, and pour boiling water over tea. Let seep 4-5 minutes and give the pot a few back and forth twists. Grandma was fine with teabags.

Grandma would undoubtably have had her tea in an elegant Aynsley cup and saucer poured from a proper tea service. Well, I have sunk to the depths in using a mug but it at least it must be a porcelain mug.  

Gravy Up Our Way
Heat drippings over high heat on stove, whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook until thickened. Add water slowly and whisk vigorously to avoid lumps. Add pepper and lots of salt (gravy needs a lot of salt) to taste.

In a New Orleans cooking class, the instructor swore that the best implement for making a roux is a flat whisk. My mother always used a spiral whisk that could smash the flour lumps while she whisked the liquid into the roux. I use a flat whisk for other sauces but always the spiral whisk for gravy.


Spiral whisk and flat whisk

Memorable Meals: Lunch in Lyon On a Cloudy Day

On Friday the 13th of November 2015, Paris was viciously attacked by terrorists. On that day we were grieved by the events, we were also packing for a flight from the states to France amidst the uncertainty of closed borders and increased alerts. On the 14th, we flew to France via Germany. Our flight from Frankfurt was delayed as all passengers were individually screened by a quartet of German police at departure and by French police doing passport checks at arrival. We arrived to a somber country in the midst of a three day mourning period. Even after the days of mourning had passed, we saw increased vigilance, armed policemen, museum and monument closures due to lack of security officials to guard the most visited places, and impromptu memorials set up on town hall steps in villages, towns, and cities.

We also saw something else. The French being the French, carrying on as always, doing what they do day to day. Egocentric perhaps, but we felt that by not cancelling our trip–which many tourists did in the immediate aftermath of the attack–that we showed our solidarity simply by being there and engaging with the French people and their culture in spite of everything. In truth, there were moments when we forgot the somber atmosphere in which we moved about, but for the most part the weight of that horrible event accompanied us wherever we went. Hearing Ma Vie en Rose performed was an emotional moment, and with hearing it the thought occurred to me that no matter what befalls it, France will always be France. We were privileged to join France in her time of loss and uncertainty, we gained certainty in who they are and always will be.

Lyon, as with other cities, towns, and villages, had flags rolled up–their version of flags at half mast–at their Hotel de Ville [city hall] and the steps were filled with candles, flowers, and offerings in a makeshift shrine. This was not the only time Lyon has felt oppressive fear and loss. We visited the Resistance and Deportation History Centre, a reminder of another black period Lyon endured. The Butcher of Lyon once held sway here and many people did not survive that occupation, those who did will never forget. We visited tiny alleyways and hidden streets in the old town, once of use to the French Resistance. But, for all the reflective and somber sites, Lyon is a showcase for what it is known for, food.

While it can be debated which city or region boasts the best cuisine, Lyon certainly embraces a reputation for gastronomy and producing Michelin star chefs. As with any city in France, there are restaurants that would cost more Euros than what we could get for selling our first born child combined with her college tuition. Still, when in Lyon dining out seemed the thing to do. A group of people who were on our river cruise, a couple we knew from another trip and one we had just met, joined together for a meal to remember. The couple we had recently met had done research and graciously extended the invitation for us to join them at a restaurant known for training great chefs, including Paul Bocuse. The restaurant, La Mère Brazier, was founded in 1921 by Eugénie Brazier, the first woman to receive three Michelin stars. The current owner of this now two star restaurant is chef Mathieu Viannay. As we were to discover, he has kept the classic and quiet feel of the iconic restaurant.

We had walked all morning and, with a help of a little city map, found our way to a quiet side street on what seemed to be the edge of the city center. We were warmly greeted and taken upstairs to a semi-private dining room, just one other table and that table quite a distance away from us. The friends we had met earlier are food lovers, our new friends were less experienced but no less enthusiastic. One gamely tried pâté for the first time, and having decided once was enough left more for the rest of us to enjoy. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but as course after course came out those extra servings of pâté laid a base of rich food we had better done without.

Every course was small, very small by American standards, but the sheer number of them added up to a belly that felt like it had just endured a Thanksgiving feast. By the time the soufflé came, a crispy cloud with a foamy, warm, moist, delicious interior, we were wondering where to put it while at the same time unable to stop eating one of the most delicious things ever to be carried by spoon to mouth. And spoon it I did, mouthful after mouthful, and still there was much of that massive crispy cloud confronting me. When one after the other of us put our spoons down and admitted defeat, we pushed back a bit from the table and stared balefully at our partially eaten soufflés knowing we were done for the day. It was at that moment that our server came to the table and said firmly, to our utter surprise, “No, you are not done yet.” Every last person at the table was stunned and horrified, our faces a mask of confusion and fear. The mark of a fine restaurant is providing an enjoyable and satisfying dining experience for the customers, and this was a fine restaurant intent on making their guests content. The server, marking the look of horror in our eyes, released us from our fate of confronting still more plates. We were let go with a round of coffee and a shared plate of chocolates, none of which we could eat but a few of which we nicked for later.

With the magic of a wonderful meal, our group was convivial and relaxed as old friends by the end of the long lunch. After our extended time gathered about the table, we walked a couple of miles to our temporary travel home, a slow trudge back with a full belly. It was the best thing for us after our encounter with Lyon gastronomy, to walk it off. And what an encounter. The service throughout was attentive, courteous, and informative. The ambiance was quiet, elegant, and classic. The food was as fabulous as it was abundant. The tab, albeit in the category of splurge but not at the cost of a first born child, was worth every Euro for the experience we had and the memories we keep. This day, as with other days on this trip to France, was under the cloud of resolve, vigilance, and grief following the recent horror in Paris, but like the everlasting clouds of beautiful soufflés, France is and will be France.

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Memorable Meals: The Weight of a Magnum

imageOne of our favorite Bay Area events was the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Weekends, the purchase of one wine glass was the ticket to wineries on the Bay side of the Santa Cruz Mountains the first weekend and the ocean side the second. The bay side was convenient to us and we had relatives to stay with on the ocean side, so the purchase of one glass was a ticket to a lot of wines.

Many of the wineries are in remote and difficult to get to locations, often groups of wineries would set up tasting tables at a single venue. The normal tasting routine was to start with the light wines, move through the whites from light and dry to rich and full, continue with the lighter bodied reds, and finish off with the full-bodied, barn-burner reds. Not a bad plan for a single tasting, or a tasting that is a 20 minute drive from the previous one, but when there are about 4 or 5 wineries all operating from the light to the dark side, the taste buds can go from discriminating to full confusion. It occurs to me now that the best thing would have been to make a complete wine #1 circuit, a wine #2 circuit, and so on in order for my taste buds to compare pleasantly light to pleasantly light and intensely rich to intense rich. For whatever reason–not that all those sips of wine would effect our reason–that did not occur to us at the time. We would go home with lots of bottles that we thought were fabulous at the time; months later they were opened in hopes that our cloudy purchase decisions were good ones. Happily, we were never disappointed nor were we ever plagued with buyer’s regret.

At one of these venues there were crowds gathered around every tasting table. One was a little less crowded than the others and, without the pressure of frantic rounds of pouring and recitations of wine facts, I was able to chat with the winemaker a bit. They were just starting out–which explained the smaller crowd–and had a wine club that promised to have special events and privileges for its first 100 members. I like privileges in this voice-activated, please-listen-as-our-options-have-changed, customer service-avoidance world, but the costs of shipping wine can exceed the costs of the wines so I was hesitant. I thought about it as I went to the other tables and sipped my way through series of light transparent whites to deep opaque reds. I returned after having made my circuit and, before 100 people could beat me to it, signed on the dotted line. My final resistance gave way when they told me they would arrange to have the winery open to the public when the club wines were released. The winery was located about 40 minutes from our home; picnicking in a pretty winery a few times a year sounded lovely. I managed to beat 93 people, becoming lucky member number 7. In the months and years that followed, hundreds more joined and we all were equally loved, but in the beginning we were special being there at the start.

They were as good as their word, having wonderful member events and occasions to celebrate the wineries climb to recognition and accolades. Wine pick-ups were a day’s outing not only for us but also for our resident energetic and friendly border collie. He would sleep in the back seat on our way down, but as soon as we pulled off the freeway and made our way to the country roads, he would pop up, stick his snoot out the window, and breath in the scents of dry California grasses baking on the hillsides. Upon arrival, our routine was to hop out of the car and go straight to the pond for a lap around water and grapevines before going to the winery. On one of our visits there was an event and a drawing for prizes. We had finished our lunch and were doing another pond circuit before our drive home. When we returned to gather our things, someone said, “You won!” We had to be present to win but as they thought we were still on the property had held off drawing another name. Sure enough, we won the grand prize: a magnum of Cabernet Franc.

We learned a bit more about this wine. They were just returning from losing a beloved pet and the phone was ringing as they entered the house. It was a reporter wanting to buy several cases of their Cabernet Franc. This was how–in a low moment–they heard the happy news that they had won their first gold metal. The wine sold out very quickly and this magnum was one of the few remaining bottles. Somehow, my thrill of winning became my weight of responsibility. This wine deserved more than being opened amidst a large party, fated to be poured into plastic tumblers and left forgotten on side tables. It was a weighty challenge to find an occasion worthy of the wine.

After discussing various possibilities, we reached a decision; we would have a dinner that included only people who would appreciate a special wine highlighted by good food and company. The first guests we thought of were the winemakers themselves, and they graciously accepted. Rounding out the party were friends of ours who had taken several cooking classes and enjoyed gourmet cooking along with a couple of family members. Guests to gather round the table determined, the next weighty challenge was what to put on the table to compliment and honor the wine.

Around this time a rather short lived but wonderful dining opportunity came into being. A French chef, a Maîtres Cuisiniers de France and former Culinary Acadmey instructor, started offering a dinner once a week in his friend’s little breakfast and lunch cafe. It was reservations only, set seating times, BYOB, and prix fix menus, but for those of us who were lucky enough to find out about it, and even luckier to get a table, it was a slow-paced, multi-coursed evening of great food. The small cafe was dressed up for evening with Provençal tablecloths, candles, and china place settings. Diners often sipped their wine and chatted amongst themselves while patiently waiting for each course. At the end of one such evening, having finished the cheese course and trying to work our way through a decadent dessert, the chef came out and chatted with the well-sipped and over-fed diners. The conversation turned to wine and I naturally mentioned my magnum and food pairing conundrum. The chef had all sorts of suggestions and–all those sips of wine between courses may have had something to do with this–I invited him to join us.

So now we had a French chef and his family, gold medal winning winemakers, foodie friends, and a few assorted family members, specifically my mother, daughter, and spouse. No pressure, just the usual dinner party.

The day of the dinner, my mother, daughter, and I spent all afternoon chopping onions, grinding spices, and braising lamb shanks. We used a recipe of Jamie Oliver’s, “Spiced Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks” from The Naked Chef. The irony of using a recipe from a British Chef’s cookbook to serve a French chef was not lost on me, but I knew imagethis recipe. A braise is usually satisfyingly rich and, more importantly, very forgiving. In an unorthodox move, I made a mass of polenta in a fuzzy logic rice cooker, but I needed a way to keep it hot and moist for an undertimined amount of time and fortunately it worked like a charm. We scurried about, sweated cucumber slices, spread them with goat cheese, and topped them with smoked salmon and a sprig of dill, moved furniture into place and laid the table, made last minute salads, and moments before guests arrived sliced up baguettes. We, three generations of women, worked all afternoon without a snip or a snarl.

Our gourmet friends arrived with chocolate pots de creme, our winemakers with more wine and winery stemware to serve it in, and our chef and family with duck legs ready to be finished in the oven. It required emptying the liquor cabinet before finding something suitable for flaming into glazing sauce, adding to the kitchen chaos, but soon duck legs were glazed and golden.

Before the preliminary sips, nibbles, and salad had been consumed, the group was relaxed and chatting like old friends. Our winemaker opened the magnum of Cabernet Franc and while he did the ceremonial pouring, the main course was served to honor the star of the show. British Jamie Oliver’s lamb shanks valiantly stood along side a French chef’s duck and a California gold medal wine. Even the polenta was a success, the chef’s son was a picky eater and he filled his mostly empty plate with several helpings of polenta. Wine enjoyed and consumed, dinner eaten, and plates cleared, we finished with the decadent chocolate. The evening had been enjoyed and had come to a satisfying end.

It was nerve wracking to cook for that particular group, but looking back it was worth every moment of worry and ranks among one of our most memorable meals. Whether anyone thought the food we prepared was worthy of the wine I will never know, they were too polite to say anything other than the usual complimentary remarks. But I truly believe the winemakers recognized our efforts to honor the wine and appreciated being present for the sharing of it. Our friends and our family love us for who we are, not for what we cook, but they all genuinely seemed to enjoy the food, wine, and company. As to the chef? What mattered was not the food served but the invitation given. Perhaps because it is so intimidating, an accomplished chef gets few invitations to eat in ordinary homes. He too recognized our effort and forgave our amateurish kitchen skills in exchange for the opportunity to just be a guest. Besides, this time the taste bud confusion of so many wines worked in our favor. If enough wine is poured, everything tastes great. And in my memory, it did.

Memorable Meals: Thanksgiving on Île de la Cité

As mentioned in the Thrill is Gone, I am temporarily restricted to a bland diet and determined to soldier through to better days. In the meantime, while I may not be able to indulge, my memory is free to enjoy memorable meals of the past. One of our memorable meals was a Franco-American Thanksgiving on Île de la Cité.

Traveling in November is a roll of the dice, but if our number comes up it is a great time to visit Europe; the sites, museums, and restaurants are a bit less crowded and everything a lot quieter and peaceful in the soft winter light. A bit risky, but it can be a wonderful time to travel if Momma Nature and the Travel Gods are on our side. While late November can be one of the busiest travel times of the year in the states, Thanksgiving is virtually unknown in Europe save for ex-pats and the people who are lucky enough to befriend them. Likewise with shopping in November, no crowds before Thanksgiving rushing to markets and grocers, no crowds after Thanksgiving sprinting full speed ahead into the Christmas rush. It is a quiet time in Europe, a bit before the Christmas markets open and long after the summer tourists have returned home.

One November we joined with friends and found a wonderful apartment on Île de la Cité overlooking the busy Seine and Hôtel de Ville. Centered in the middle of the most touristy of Paris, we had wonderful places to explore in all directions–and we did–but one of our favorite things was to sit at the window and watch the boats go by from the early morning commercial river traffic to the busy tourist boats that drifted by throughout the day, the dusk, and into the twinkling lit darkness of evening. It was the perfect place to take a break for lunch in the middle of the day, we were never far from our local home for a simple luncheon with a remarkable view.

The kitchen was small but our dining table was quite large, a bit challenging for cooking but a perfect place for entertaining. With plenty of seating at the table we were able to increase our number with an assortment of guests, our nephew who was studying in Paris that year, our daughter and her British friend who joined us from Germany, and finally a chef acquaintance of our friends, who happened to be in Paris with his daughter and a friend, completed the guest list.

With a challenging kitchen–very limited counter space, tiny refrigerator, and a small oven–we had to plan our feast accordingly. We were familiar with the local wine, produce, butcher, and cheese shops in the neighborhood but we needed more selection than could be found in our immediate area to create a Thanksgiving. We branched out to other neighborhoods looking for oddities.

Not trusting I could find canned pumpkin and condensed milk in Paris, I brought a couple of cans with me along with some decent knives; one is less likely to find good knives in a rental apartment than cans of Libby’s pumpkin in Paris. Not surprisingly, the kitchen–although fairly well outfitted–did not have pie pans. No problem, we were across from a large BHV department store and not too far away from cookware shops in Les Halles.

We found fabulous cookware and housewares departments in the BHV, and did pick up a few things, but not pie pans. To say we picked up a few things fails to relate how perplexed we were shopping in this store. We had a total failure to communicate, and not just with the language. We gathered our goods and stood in line for the cashier waiting to check out. When we reached the front of the line, the woman would not ring up our purchases. Our French was not good enough to gather more than the emphatic “No” and we were quite at a loss as to why she refused to sell us the items we had gathered. It was not until we found a salesperson on the floor who had enough English to explain the proper way to purchase our goods that we were able to have any success. Our instructions were to leave the goods in the department, have a salesperson on the floor write a ticket, take the ticket to the cashier, stand in line (again), pay the amount on the ticket, have the ticket marked as paid, return to the department where the goods remained on the shelves, find the salesperson and give him or her the ticket, wait patiently as he or she collected the goods and wrapped them for carry-out, and finally, after all that, would we be able to leave with the goods.

We wandered through a cookware shop with a large baking section in Les Halles, but no pie pan. Surely, we thought, the very famous Julia Child recommended shop, E.Dehillerin, would have pie pans. E.Dehillerin did have about every type of cookware and bakeware one could imagine, including pots big enough to seat all of our guests, but no pie pans. It was a multi-level, floor to ceiling treasure hunt that turned up many a treasure save the one we were looking for. Sighing with the thought of all those disposable aluminum pie tins hanging in displays in the states, I belatedly thought how easily a couple of aluminum pie tins could have joined my cans for the transatlantic journey. Well, this was Paris so citrouille tarte it would be.

E. Dehillerin

Having resolved to make a tart and giving up the pie pan search, I realized we that while we had a tart pan we had no pastry making equipment. We would not mind searching  La Grande Épicerie de Paris for pre made tart shells but were fortunate to find a smallish supermarket nearby that had “bio” savory tart pastry in a roll, similar to the Pillsbury pie crusts found in the refrigerated section in grocery stores at home but made from all natural ingredients. It was pretty close to as good as we could have made if we had counter space, pastry boards, mixing bowls, and rolling pins. Heavy cream, no problem. Our plans and ingredients for pumpkin pie, or rather tart, all present and accounted for.

The produce store nearby was good but selected our produce for us, it was strictly hands-off and all transactions took place in French or by pointing and holding up fingers; a bit difficult when one has limited French and a long list of produce to purchase. The first time in the shop I had learned the moment my fingers reached for a tangerine that I had done the unthinkable. My husband entered a few minutes later and began to reach for a piece of fruit and I cried, “NOOOOO, don’t touch it!” just in time to prevent another international incident. The produce store we found in Saint Germain was a bit more relaxed and we could select on our own produce or get assistance. There we found a bag of Ocean Spray fresh cranberries and as soon as I had them in hand, an assistant was by my side helping me find everything on my laboriously translated-into-French shopping list. He even asked how many stalks of celery we needed for our stuffing and tore off just the amount we needed, no leftovers to worry about shoving into that tiny refrigerator. Sage was the problem as my translator had given me the translation for a wise guy, not an herb, but he stuck with me until we figured it out and we eventually found it.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we saved bits of baguettes from our meals to put toward the stuffing and had our plan for bread cubes. With the help of the produce man, we now had celery and sage, which left ground sausage for the stuffing. It is easy enough to find stuffed sausages of many varieties, but bulk sausage was not so easily found. We were able to find bulk sausage at the butcher next to the produce market. They quickly recognized why we were shopping and tried to sell us a turkey. It was tempting, until I remembered the size of the oven. They did, however, have a rotisserie filled with golden juicy chickens turning round and round. Even better, the slow roasted chickens were situated over roasted potatoes, potatoes which were probably already well laden with butter but now saturated with juices from those chickens. There is always mashed potatoes and gravy at this feast, but those flavor enriched potatoes erased all thoughts of that tradition. Our dinner shopping was complete, save a bit of shopping for wine–anything but a challenge in Paris–and fresh bread pulled from the oven hours before the feast.

On Thanksgiving, we sent a crew out to pick up chickens and potatoes while we made all the trimmings, rotating things in and out of the small oven beginning with our pumpkin tart-not-pie. We baked our stuffing in broth after cubing the saved bits of baguettes and tossing them with the sautéed onions, celery, sausage, and sage. Yes, we learned, baguettes do make wonderful bread cubes for stuffing. We cooked up some cranberry sauce with a bit of freshly squeezed orange juice and prepared haricot vert with mushrooms for our final side dish.

We had a lot of wine at the ready, and as every guest also brought wine, many bottles of regional French wines were opened, passed around, and enjoyed. Having a guest chef in the mix turned out to be an excellent idea, not only for the quality of wine he brought but also for his expertise in carving those chickens up faster than we could open a bottle of wine.

With the view of the Seine visible through the windows, we sat down to a memorable feast. Although missing a few of the traditional dishes and family back in the states, it was not lacking in the things that Thanksgiving is known for: beloved family, good friends, good food, good wine, and the thankfulness to be in this place, at this time, and sharing it with these people.

Photo credit for many of the photos to the spouse (everyone has a job in the kitchen, someone had to take pictures while the others planned, shopped, and cooked).

The Thrill is Gone

To call myself a foodie would overstate my knowledge and expertise in fine wines, top restaurants, exotic cuisines, and flavor profiles. But I do love to cook, eat good food, and enjoy a variety of wines. Although many of our books did not make our West Coast to Midwest move, the number of cookbooks that made the cut was exceeded only by the number of knitting books that made it on board the moving van. First captivatedby Julia Child so many years ago, moving on to Iron Chef (the original Japanese version), and now captivated by shows such as Top Chef and the British Baking Show, I find watching about food as enjoyable as eating it. There is little about travel I enjoy more than experiencing local cuisine. Of course it helps that it is one of the few travel experiences that lets me sit down and rest, but it is one of the best ways

of experiencing a new region. I may photograph more plates of food than local sites when traveling and relive my travels as much with memories of meals as with memories of excursions. Visiting wineries, participating in wine tastings, and experimenting with wine pairings has always been among our favorite activities. For all that–although admittedly falling short of foodie status–I certainly can be counted among those who enjoy good food and fine wines.

Imagine my horror when, in response to a malady, the doctor restricted my diet to all but the blandest of ingredients. Just say no to coffee, tea, acidic juices, and wine (or any other alcoholic beverage for that matter). Just say no to citrus or any other acidic fruits such as strawberries or pineapple. Just say no to tomatoes or any foods containing tomatoes including sauces, soups, and braises. Just say no to spicey foods. Just say no to fatty foods. Just say no, no, no.

There are pros and cons for the spouse. Although he can get the cheeseburger, pizza, burrito, spice-fest out of his system when he eats out at lunch, the dinners at home have held very little excitement. Rice or roasted potatoes, steamed vegetables, lean imagemeat, no dessert, wine in his glass, and water in mine. On the plus side, he can look at the wine cellar and say, “Mine, all mine!” He also has a sweet deal when it comes to a night out, a resident designated driver and lower restaurant tabs with only one person on the a bar bill.

If dinners for the spouse our dull, at least he is spared my very simple lean white meat
lunches and unflavored oatmeal breakfasts. Weekend breakfasts I avert my eyes so he does not feel my glare when he generously shakes Lousianna hot sauce on his eggs, peels off sections of tart juicy wedges from his tangerine, and enjoys slabs of butter on his toast. Eating has become something that is a necessity, not an enjoyment, like the routine of brushing teeth; necessary but not something to look forward to. That brings me to the kitchen. There is no inspiration to be found there. Meal planning is an absolute drudge. Grocery shopping has become a dull-eyed wander up and down the aisles with a nearly empty cart. Weeknight cooking has never been a high point, but to say the thrill is gone when I enter the kitchen every evening to prepare dinner is an understatement. Remembering Like Water for Chocolate, I can only think that my lack of inspiration and my malaise is as noticeable in the food itself as it is in my planning and preparing.

There has to be a silver lining, a plus side to all this. Well, clearly knocking out just about everything from my diet, including the empty caloried but oh so delicious wines, should be a boon for the waistline. But (wo)man does not live on bread alone, and watching a scale–although satisfying to watch numbers decline little by little–does not replace the loss of flavor and enjoyment of meals. So…perhaps I need to change my point of view. This could be my greatest kitchen challenge ever. Granted, I feel as limited as a chef-testant on Top Chef being told to create a masterpiece for a Vegan with celiac disease and a garlic allergy, but surely there is flavor to be found in the simplest of ingredients.image

Now is the time for those all those cookbooks to justify their added weight on the moving truck. And now it is time for me to crack them open, enthusiastic with the challenge and anxious for the inspiration. If I succeed, I’ll be back with a full belly and a mouthful of words. If I fail, my next kitchen posting may be when my health is restored and my whine is back in a glass where it belongs.