Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Strawberries are in season here in Barcelona. They're on the menus at all the restaurants we pass, and the market stalls of the fruit sellers at La Boqueria, the big outdoor market on La Rambla, are filled with boxes of red strawberries glowing with freshness. We decided to have them for dessert last night at Tragaluz, a hip restaurant in the Eixample neighborhood of the city.

I'm not generally a big fan of strawberries and will usually choose raspberries instead. But the strawberries last night were out of this world. Served in small white bowls, they were sliced over a scoop of hyper cold vanilla ice cream. The waiter brought a little pitcher of strawberry emulsion (a fancy word for the syrup of the berries), which he poured over the berries in our chilled ceramic bowls.

I love my life at home and all the many privileges that come with being American. But we don't do justice to the food we eat. We should be in love with strawberries the way I was last night, dreaming about them, and choosing them every time as the only possible dessert. I know I'll yearn for my Barcelona strawberries when I get home and will remember them as the thing that transcends all the grit and grime and noise and bustle and stink of this Mediterranean port city.

Photo: Ready-to-eat fruit at La Boqueria, the outdoor market on Barcelona's La Rambla (pedestrian street)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I've wanted to come to Barcelona ever since I saw All about My Mother. It's the movie that turned me into an Almodovar groupie. Watching his movies is like eating. It's a sensual experience, and this movie, set in Barcelona, is a feast for the eyes.

Aside from physical beauty, Almodovar also sees the beauty in freaks and weird things and life on the margins. I thought about that today at Gaudi's Park Guell, a hilltop park overlooking Barcelona and the sea, with walking paths, mosaics, small fountains, flowering crabs, and blooming mimosa trees.

A scene in All about My Mother (or is it Volver?) is set here, and as we wandered the grounds, I read about Gaudi's patron, wealthy industrialist Eusebi Guell i Bacigalupi. He happened to meet Gaudi at an exhibition in Paris in the late 1800s, and from that chance encounter flourished a productive relationship, one result of which is the Park Guell in Barcelona. According to my National Geographic guidebook, Gaudi and Guell overheard passersby complaining that one of Gaudi's buildings was too "weird." Guell is said to have remarked, "Mr. Gaudi, now I like you even more!"

Photos: mosaic tile at the entrance to Park Guell; mimosa tree in bloom in the park

We're in Barcelona for a short visit before returning home, and the city is quite a contrast to neat and tidy Paris. Street sweepers here brush light trash off the sidewalks into little plastic paniers in the evening, but everything else, at least down by the waterfront where we are, sports graffiti and layers of grime, no doubt from the heavy car exhaust that permeates the air. And yet it's a lively, happy place to be, and the weather is fabulous. Now in late February, it's sunny and close to 60 degrees, and while locals bundle up in winter coats, my father and I enjoy light sweaters as we walk past swaying palm trees and flowering cacti. It's a nice way to prepare for the six inches of snow awaiting us on the other side of the ocean.

The Spanish newspapers today are filled with coverage of Penelope Cruz's win at Sunday's Oscars. Full page articles in all the rags show her in her vintage Pierre Balmain evening gown, kissing the statuette, and the news reports on television replay parts of her acceptance speech over and over. (It seems she did not faint after all.) Spain is proud.

Photo: Me calling home from the phone booth just outside our hotel in Barcelona. The city seems to have a phone booth on every block, and I love this photo of me looking like an Almodovar character who's hopped off her Vespa to make one of many calls to a crazy character who is, no doubt, ever elusive.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

HOT FLASH FROM PARIS: Romancero Gitano
The historic Folies-Bergères is a dump. Once the Montmartre haunt of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the inspiration of many of his drawings and paintings, the theatre is now crumbling--peeling paint, threadbare carpeting, sagging seats. But it came alive last night with Cristina Hoyos and her Ballet Flamenco Andalucia, who are in Paris to perform Hoyos's choreography for the Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballad) of Andalusian poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.

The troupe performed for two hours, without intermission, bringing down the house with wild cheering, rhythmic clapping, and shouts of "Bravo, bravo!" We jumped to our feet along with everyone else, in total admiration of the troupe's precision, costumes, and sheer joy of dance.

Below is the original Spanish and two English-language translations of the first and fourth stanzas of the famous fourth ballad, which Hoyos chooses to open and close the ballad's exploration of constraints on personal freedom:

Romance sonambulo
Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verde ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montana.


Verde que te quiero verde.
Grandes estrellas de escarcha,
vienen con el pez de sombra
que abre el camino del alba.

Sleepwalking Ballad (I)
(my father's literal translation)
Green as I love you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship upon the sea
and the horse in the mountain.
Green as I love you green.
Great stars
come with the shadow
that opens the white road.

Sleepwalking Ballad (II)
(transliteration by Carl W. Cobb, University Press of Mississippi, 1983; Cobb's transliteration is so-called because he works to preserve the rules of the ballad in meter, rhyme, syllabification, etc., to be true to the musicality of the form rather than constructing a translation that cleaves to the literal meaning of the words. The two approaches are irreconcilable, so go with the one that speaks to you.)

Green grows my love, my love grows green.
Green wind. Green-branching tree.
Stallion on the mountain heights
And ship upon the sea.
Green grows my love, my love grows green.
Great hoar-frost stars come down
And join the shadow fish that frees
The pathway of the dawn.

I'm ready for Spain.

(Note to readers: We leave Paris for Barcelona on Monday, home on Friday.)

HOT FLASH FROM PARIS: Les Restes du Roi (The King's Leftovers)
La chef, for whom I served a stint as sous chef three years ago, invited us for lunch yesterday at her new apartment in the Marais. It's close to her old place but is bigger and has more natural light coming in through a streetside wall of French doors. La chef still leads cooking classes through her Promenades Gourmandes business and is branching out to a culinary salon approach through her new Salon Culinaire, offering her space for artistic and corporate team-building and brainstorming sessions, publicity events, private dinners, gatherings with culinary experts, and the like.

As la chef prepared lunch--les restes (leftovers) from a big dinner the night before
--we nibbled thin slices of Lyonnais sausage with small salted sablés (crackers). Her companion poured wine (white and red), and we sat down to a first course of individual truffle soufflés with mushroom emulsion (mousse) in little verrines (glass cups). Talk moved quickly from professional chitchat to local politics (city elections, garbage collection, library services) as la chef brought out the plat principal (main course): blanquette de veau (veal) in a cream sauce accompanied by lemon basmati rice (basmati with chopped preserved lemon).

We wiped up the sauce on our plates with pieces of baguette, and I asked about the difference between the "croissant au beurre" (butter croissant, photo below) and the "croissant ordinaire" (croissant made with margarine). The butter croissant is made in a straight or slightly curved shape, while the margarine knockoff is typically overly crescent shaped or even square. La chef and her companion had a long and lively dispute about the tax base imposed by the French government on these two types of croissants. Basically, it gets down to the fact that you pay more for the butter-based croissants. But it's worth the extra sous (pennies) for the superior flavor, even if you do have to lick your fingers afterward.

A simple salad of walnuts and chopped endive (red and green) in a light vinaigrette followed. Then cheese--reblochon, a soft, cow's milk cheese from eastern France. Then dessert--chocolate orange tart topped with chopped pistachios. Then small cups of espresso.

We ate everything with gusto and oohed and aahed over it all. "It's nothing," remarked la chef. "Just an easy lunch for a busy day."

Photos: la chef's new Lacanche stove (they're made in Burgundy); a classic croissant au beurre, with little pots of Bonne Maman jam (a very common brand)

HOT FLASH FROM PARIS: La tarte tatin
The classic tarte tatin (apple tart) has been on dessert menus all over town this visit. It's a very traditional, tasty French dessert that is also easy to make. Below is a recipe from La Carpe's winter catalogue. (La Carpe is a culinary store on the tony Rue Tronchet at the Madeleine).

Tarte Tatin
6 ounces sugar
2 ounces unsalted butter
6 apples, cut into big slices
1 pate brisée (see Julia Child or any other good French cookbook)

1. Place the sugar in a heatproof 8-inch deep-dish pie pan (or in a tarte tatin mold) on top of the stove.
2. On medium heat, allow the sugar to melt. Be patient, and do not add water. When the sugar is a nice caramel color, add the butter and stir til blended.
3. Take the pie dish off the stovetop and add the slices of apple in concentric circles or in whatever pattern is pleasing to the eye.
4. Cover the apples with the pate brisée, crimp the edges, and place the tarte in the oven for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

Serve warm with crème fraiche, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream. It's great plain too. Serves 6 people.

Photo: panel from the window of Le Champ de Delices patisserie/boulangerie on rue St. Dominique in the 7th arrondissement

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Street fashion in Paris falls into a few obvious categories this year:

--fur, fur, fur. Fur coats, fur hats, fur collars and neckpieces, fur gloves, fur everything. I have to admit to feeling sad about this. I was working on a book about animal rights just before coming to Paris, and you don't want to hear how we get our furs. At least not on this blog.

--tight jeans, although you do see some wide-legged sailor-style jeans too.

--pointy-toed boots, flat heeled or high heeled.

--the ubiquitous scarf around the neck, usually in an interesting contrasting color.

--the "boule" dress, form-fitting at the bust and waist and then ballooning out at the knees and loosely cinched there (with elastic, I think). You wear the dress with leggings or tight-fitting pants. I saw a woman jogging along the river the other day in such an outfit. I thought she looked ridiculous, but the get-up is everywhere.

Photo: one of the elegant streetlamps at the Pont Alexandre III (think Les Invalides and the Grand and Petit Palais)
HOT FLASH FROM PARIS: Le Cimetière des Chiens

My sister and I have been sharing stories of our menopausal angst lately, and she suggested I call my posts from Paris "Hot Flash from Paris" as a sort of double entendre (menopause gone front page). I haven't actually had a hot flash while here (thank heavens), but the name works.

Yesterday, my father and I took the Metro out to Le Cimetière des chiens (the pet cemetery) at Asnières-sur-Seine, a northwestern suburb of Paris along the Seine. I'd read about the cemetery online while fact checking a book on American cemeteries that we recently published at work.

The cemetery has a sad charm counterbalanced by the welcome of a family of very alive resident cats--all well fed and cared for by the official cemetery association and by unofficial but authorized (in true French fashion) volunteers.

A small black female cat with rich red undertones greeted me as I entered the cemetery and accompanied me along my stroll. Toward the end of our exploring, she jumped onto the bench I chose for a sit-down and began to groom. I sat quietly, admiring her coat and self assurance. As my reward, she eventually sidled up to me, stretched out along my hip, made it clear she wanted to be stroked, and began to purr softly. We sat together for quite some time, and yours truly fell totally in love.

When it was time to leave, the little cat accompanied me to the gate, and I bid my farewell, thanking her for her friendship. "Ils ont leurs tetes" (They have their ideas) one of the volunteers told me later about cats and whom they decide they like. Little "Princess" had decided she liked me.

I don't know if Princess even has a name, but if she does, it might have been chosen from among this selection of names from the headstones throughout the cemetery. In alphabetical order (more or less), they are:


Try reading this list aloud. It's so much fun and so French--and you might even find a name you like for your pet!

Photos: Headstones and decorations at the cemetery; me with Princess

Monday, February 16, 2009

As I was paying for Valentine's Day dinner at Le Chamarré (a Mauritian restaurant in gentrifying Montmartre), the server noted the Italian name on my VISA card and seemed confused. He looked at me, a little unsure of my nationality, and asked, "You must be from New York?"

I gave up a long time ago trying to explain to Europeans the location of my Midwestern home (a city of at least one million people). They know the coasts of the United States and seem to imagine the interior as a Great Desert, not unlike American pioneers did in the nineteenth century. So I've taken instead to saying I'm from Chicago. Normally, Parisians show a vague recognition of this city; they often associate it with gangsters like Al Capone. But this year, they link it immediately to our national pride and international hero. "Aaah," cooed the server (a somewhat flirtatious young man), "la ville d'Obama (Obama's city)!"

What a thrill of relief and happiness I felt. No need to explain that I hadn't voted for Obama's predecessor and didn't support the war; no need to clarify that I didn't have a "thing" against the French for not going with us to Iraq; no need to feel apologetic for my homeland. It's a good feeling. And it's been a long time coming.

Photo: Saint Valentine's Day bread in the window of Le Pain d'Epis, an artisanal boulangerie near our apartment in the 7th arrondissement

Friday, February 06, 2009

Never heard of egg bake? It's a sort of breakfast hot dish, a crustless quiche baked in a 9 x 13 cake pan. It's billed as quick and easy, but it actually requires planning, a lot of puttsy preparation a day ahead of time, and good timing. I even crashed my computer searching for egg bake recipes online. Nonetheless, egg bake has proven to be a very tasty crowd pleaser, which we brought to brunch last weekend with friends. I found the recipe below on a website years ago and have adapted it to our tastes and methods.

Egg Bake
6-7 slices white bread, with the crusts removed
8-12 ounces ham, chopped into bite-sized pieces (meat is optional)
4-5 cups grated cheddar cheese (a mix of yellow and white cheddar is nice)
1 large head broccoli, chopped into florettes and blanched in boiling water for 1 minute
1 large yellow onion, chopped and sauteed in butter
8 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 to 3 cups half and half or milk (or a mixture of the two)

1. Start by removing the crusts from the bread slices.

2. Butter a 9 x 13 pan. Butter each slice of bread lightly, cut in half, and arrange slices in the bottom of the pan.
3. Chop the ham, blanche the broccoli, sautee the onion, and grate the cheese.
4. Layer these ingredients on top of the bread, ham first, then broccoli, then the onion. Sprinkle the grated cheese on top.

4. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the salt and stir in the cream and/or milk. Blend well.
5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread, ham, broccoli, and cheese.

6. Cover the dish with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

7. The next morning, take the egg bake out of the refrigerator, remove the foil or plastic wrap, and allow to come to room temperature (about 15-20 minutes).
8. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until cheese has melted and egg bake is lightly browned on top. Let stand a few minutes before serving so the eggs firm up.

We had our egg bake with homemade cinnamon rolls and fresh fruit. The 9 x 13 pan served four adults and two children, with enough leftovers for a light lunch.
Note to readers: I'm off to Paris and Barcelona next Thursday for two weeks. Watch for a post from the City of Lights!