Thursday, November 26, 2015

No such thing as a Bordeaux rosé

Back in October, I was in France again to catch up with my Tours mates. We like to pick somewhere new and convenient for us all to get to, which is not super easy, but Bordeaux fit the bill perfectly. Just a short plane ride for me (Brussels is so much better in terms of air connections than Tours or Metz, unsurprisingly) and a train trip for Liz and Mel. I'd never been, so it seemed the perfect destination for a weekend away.

(As a side note, this is the first blog I'm writing since the recent attacks and "lockdown", although not the first to be published obviously. Words fail me on that subject, so I'd rather just celebrate France the way it should be - full of wine and culture and good times.)

The opera house
Obviously, Bordeaux being Bordeaux, wine was pretty high on our list of priorities. I've got to confess something here, I don't like Bordeaux wines. Or I'm ignorant of and intimidated by Bordeaux wines, I don't know. I like my reds on the light and easy-drinking end of the scale, so shoot me. Bordeauxs always seemed too heavy and tannic for my tastes. But when in Bordeaux, do as the Bordelais do, or at least as the tourists do, so we fronted up to the Maison des Vins on Saturday after lunch, determined to learn some more.

A wall of Bordeaux wine in the Maison des Vins
And... turns out that there are Bordeaux wines I like! The friendly and helpful staff steered us towards Saint-Emilion wines - my favourite was the Puisseguin, which I'd never heard of before (I committed it to memory by calling it "pussy gone", which is the maturity level you'd expect after four hours of drinking). We were drinking "half glasses", which still seemed to be pretty much the size of a full glass if you ask me, plus the occasional full glass when we went off menu and asked for the secret wines. (Not so secret, our first waiter told us about them, but the guy we asked to bring us secret wines seemed impressed by our insider knowledge and daring.) We got through 5 glasses of wine each, so 15 glasses total. And the price came to... around 37€. Not 37€ each, 37€ all up. We nearly fell off our chairs in a combination of shock and having drunk about a bottle of wine each!

By the way, it was a fabulous decision to arrive after lunch, around 4 pm or so. We stayed until we went to dinner around 8.30, and for at least half that time there was constantly a queue of people standing right behind us waiting to get a table. We felt maybe slightly bad to be sitting there laughing and talking and drinking wine under their baleful glare, but on the other hand, we were loving it.

We were finally done with wine and ready for dinner, so we quickly made a phone reservation somewhere nearby, having more than once been in the situation of traipsing around a French city post-9 pm and finding everywhere full or stopped serving. We regretted having reserved, however, when we stepped into the restaurant lobby and discovered it smelled like poo. Not just smelled bad, smelled like actual human sewage. There was a moment of confusion - why was the waiter just standing there in the middle of this stink without a flicker of disgust? Why were there people inside the restaurant, eating? We would have walked out if we hadn't booked, but instead we asked to be moved to a table upstairs, where the poo smell was absent. Later, noticing a similar smell in the lobby of the apartment building where we were renting, we wondered whether this is just a typical Bordeaux smell and the locals don't even notice it (there is a town in New Zealand called Rotorua where this is the case, due to an abundance of sulphorous gases). Has anyone else found that Bordeaux smells like shit? I googled, and apparently it's a thing that the wine may smell that way, but nothing really for the city itself...

Happy diners in our fancy poo-smell restaurant

Service was also slow, by the way

The opera house by night
I dragged the girls home - Liz in particular wanted to keep partying, but I was coming down with a cold, and had to reluctantly turf myself out of bed the next morning for a full English breakfast in a nearby cafe. We were all pretty happy just to relax and walk around the city rather than trying to do much. It's a lovely place to wander around - a very harmonious, largely 18th-century style. Much less higgedly piggedly in its architecture than many old cities.

We found the famous miroir d'eau - literally looks like nothing when you're standing in front of it - it's (not literally) miles away from the buildings it reflects and I've seen shinier puddles. We almost gave up and concluded that the dingy grey atmospheric conditions weren't right for it to reflect anything, but lo and behold, as soon as you look through a camera lens, the effect works a treat.

We walked along the riverbank, where there was a huge food market, and found an antique-y area which was specially open (on Sunday) to celebrate the vin nouveau. Which, by the way, was not at all what I expected - I was thinking Beaujolais Nouveau, whereas this was the colour of cloudy apple juice and tasted pretty much like juice too.

The monument aux Girondins (Revolutionary politicians)

On the banks of the Garonne river

"Do you think this might be a trademark infringement?" "No way, if we call it Mickey *Boy*, no-one will ever know"
Oh, and as for the title of the blog? We went for one last drink at a big chi-chi place on the square by the opera house, and I asked for a rosé. He said there was Provence rosé on the menu, so, confused, I clarified that of course I wanted a Bordeaux rosé. The waiter said there was no such thing as a Bordeaux rosé. I said, "mais, si", since apart from having definitely seen and drunk Bordeaux rosés before, I had been in the bloody official Bordeaux Maison des Vins the day before and seen them on the menu. He snobbily maintained that Bordeaux made clairet (claret in English), not rosé, so I just said fine, I wouldn't have anything. My cold had definitely arrived by this stage and I didn't really want wine that much in any case. Lucky enough, because it turned out in this establishment, a glass of wine cost NINE euros! So for the price of 15 wines at the lovely Maison des Vins, you could have four there, and be patronised by the waiter into the bargain. I'll just leave this thing that definitely does exist here...

Monday, November 23, 2015

If you're tired of London, you're tired of life

One thing I've heard from several friends lately is that I'm "always on holiday". This is probably the impression I give on the blog as well, since I tend to only bother with blog and facebook posts when there's something interesting to report. That and I took my summer holidays a bit "out of phase" with everyone else, in early July and mid-September, so people just noticed it more. It's true I love to travel as much as possible though, and these past couple of months have been busy with long weekends.

Way in advance, I came up with the perfect present for Jules's birthday in October, a trip to London. He had mentioned wanting to visit several times, since he'd only been once on a school trip before, and then I came across somewhere the fact that an Escher exhibition was opening up the day before his birthday, so it was fate. Eurostar tickets booked, hotel picked, all that remained was to wait and not spill the beans to him on our surprise destination.

Until, that is, my parents were visiting Brussels in August and suggested that we might want to come over to London at the end of September to celebrate their 45th wedding annversary. 45 years, that is definitely an achievement worth celebrating! So I buttoned my lip and figured that, while I may not have planned to take two trips to London within three weeks in normal circumstances, we would probably still get a lot out of it.

Amazingly, even though all my family and friends that we hung out with in September knew that we were coming back again a few weeks later, no-one said a word. My parents even said a final goodbye, "see you in New Zealand" that was evidently very convincing. I managed to keep Jules in the dark right up until we went through the check-in for the Eurostar. It was quite funny, we had a little time before getting on the train, so I encouraged him to sit and drink his coffee just outside the Eurostar terminal, and right up until the last minute he couldn't make up his mind whether I had brought him to the Eurostar bit as a trick or if we were really going to London again.

Since Jules hadn't really done the big London sights, we tried to pack in several of the big museums, including the British Museum, National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. As well as the Escher exhibition of course, which was out in the middle of nowhere in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I would probably describe myself as indifferent to Escher, but it was a really good exhibition. Seeing the original prints up close, you could really see the artistry and skill. It was amazing to see the different techniques he mastered, from using different methods to create the prints (engraving, carving etc.) and the different kinds of optical illusions and artifices he employed. I definitely came away with a greater appreciation of his work.

Egyptian art at the British Museum

Cute medieval hunting scene, seems to be a jolly jape for all involved

Jules and a pharaonic friend

Scary Aztec mask


In Chinatown

People crossing the Millennium Bridge

In front of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square (we had beautiful weather by the way)
A bit windy crossing the Thames
For their anniversary dinner, we went out to a Michelin-starred Peruvian restaurant, Lima. I suppose if you're going to try Peruvian cuisine, it makes sense to start with the best! The vibe was quite different from other starred restaurants I've been to, more casual service and even oontsy oontsy background music! It was actually quite nice for a family dinner as opposed to the more formal French fine dining tradition. The menu was quite eclectic, featuring cactus desserts and blue potato chocolate mousse (which I had) amongst other exotic fare. I don't know how representative it is of your average Peruvian cuisine, but it was good!

Guess that lady in the background really didn't want to be in our photo
On our second trip, after the Escher exhibition and saying goodbye to my parents on the Friday night (coincidentally, their flight back to New Zealand was on the Saturday), birthday boy opted to spend his special day in the Natural History Museum. Ye gods, it was crowded. Turns out gigantic strollers are not content to restrict themselves to annoying the crap out of everyone on pavements and buses anymore, but have invaded museums. The whole place basically looked like a daycare centre, but was as crowded as a nightclub. The only part we did was the dinosaurs, because Jules wanted to and I couldn't really say no since it was his birthday. The dinosaur section has a really cool concept - you go up some stairs and along a suspended walkway, so you are eye level with a lot of fossils and some animatronic dinosaurs, and then come back down to the bit with all the proper museumy information about the dinos. However, it was so busy and (as we found out later) the whole line is held up by the giant animatronic T-Rex at the end of it, that we spent a good 20 minutes packed into this walkway shuffling along with no escape. Nightmare.

We walked through Hyde Park from our hotel to the Natural History Museum (full of cute dogs!)

Jules and the T-Rex

Seems this T-Rex had to be put down

Outside the museum
I crowdsourced suggestions for our birthday dinner, and one of my friends suggested we try one of Peter Gordon's restaurants, Kopapa. Peter Gordon is a New Zealand chef, I think mostly known in New Zealand for pioneering a kind of Pacific Rim fusion food, and maybe known in the UK for now running Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Anyway, I thought it was a cool opportunity to have a little taste of home - not that Kiwis are running around eating fusion food all day long. It was the sort of menu where you look at it and feel a bit worried whether or not you're going to like it, but everything was really good.

They had special Rugby World Cup-themed cocktails. Jules betrayed us all by going for South Africa

Delicious terrine with a crispy poached egg (the ball on the left). I didn't know what they meant by it and had forgotten it was on the plate by the time it came, so I was delighted when I cut into it and the yolk came out. It normally annoys me when TV chefs describe food as "playful", but it was accurate for a change 

Main course cod, polenta and pea puree
We had a three-course menu, because I found a special deal for it online, but some of the people around us were having a tapas-style meal, which I would definitely go back for, looked yummy! We're probably Londoned out for the moment, not least because it's bloody expensive, but as Johnson and my blogpost title say, it takes more than two trips in three weeks to see all there is to see in the city.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Movin' on in

So while we were roadtripping around South-West France, wheels of a different kind were in motion. Jules and I have been together for over a year and a half now, which is a year and a half of what I term "medium-distance dating". Long-distance is a bit dramatic, since we spent every weekend together, and we've only been two to three hours' apart the whole time (traffic and so on depending). But still, it's obviously not quite the same when you have to say goodbye every Sunday evening and go back to your weekly routine on your own.

There have been high-level negotiations going on over when we could move in together, and the general consensus reached was to look into it some time after we got back from Albania. I think we both quite wanted to have at least one summer in Jules's apartment, which is sunny and has balconies on both sides, and it made sense to get summer holidays out of the way before he started a new job. Talk accelerated after Albania as well because it was the first time we'd spent longer than a week together and then it makes it harder to settle back into daily life without them.

Enough soppiness. Anyway, Jules started looking pretty much in the late August or the beginning of September, and within a week of sending his application to this one place, he had a phone interview, came up to Brussels to meet with them the following Saturday morning, and by mid-September, when we were due to go away on our trip, he was debating whether to hand in his notice before or after our holiday.

He decided to do it beforehand, and with the week's holiday, a weekend in London and another in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the month flew by and in mid-October, before I knew it, he was on my doorstep with all his portable possessions in the back of his car (his furniture thankfully stayed behind in his flat which is now rented out - and I never got to say goodbye to it!)

It's now two weeks in (more by the time this gets published, since for once I have stored up a number of posts in advance and am doling them out at a measured pace instead of dumping them over a few days and then radio silence for a month) and I don't think it has really dawned on me that he lives here yet. It doesn't help that we were back in London again the day after he moved in, or that this week he's gone away with his new work.

One major challenge is trying to fit two people's stuff into an apartment that has heretofore been set up for one person. Even just sorting through the duplicates of herbs and spices needed some strategic thinking (yeah, yeah, first world problems). So there's been a bit of an IKEA-fest, getting a second wardrobe, a little thing with drawers instead of the small coffee table, and replacing one of the bookshelves with a vitrine, which has the dual function of freeing up space in the kitchen and giving me somewhere to put my pretty things.

Room for more wine too :)
I fell in love with the Fables of La Fontaine series of Gien faience when I first moved to Brussels and have been collecting it since. They had a sale on a couple of months ago, and I rashly bought some of the Four Seasons plates too (on the left). I need to start having dinner parties so we can use them!
Coffee table replacement, aka storage for all the crap hanging about the lounge
I don't know how things will change from here. It's fair to say that living apart extends the "honeymoon period" somewhat, since it's always a special occasion when you see each other. But I'm pretty excited to do normal couple things like go to pub quiz on Mondays and occasionally meet up in town after work (Christmas markets!) or go to our favourite local restaurant which is only open for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays, so we could never normally go. And maybe I'll feel a bit more like my life is actually here in Brussels, and we might even make some friends (gosh, dreaming big here). It should be fun to find out :)

Update/ Time to publish this post and it's now been a month of living together. Still very early days of course, and to be honest, I still don't feel settled into the routine. It's more just like the weekends together have blended in to one another or something. The house is tidier, which is a bonus! I do clean, but I'm kind of a "big clean once a week" girl, whereas Jules is "little and often", which is a pain at the time but does result in a more continually clean dwelling. I miss having leftovers for lunch though! Hasn't quite filtered through to my brain to buy more food and cook larger quantities since the number of people eating has doubled. Boxes are mostly unpacked and stored, but will still be good to move somewhere bigger eventually, if only for the chance to get a larger fridge! (Also hampering that "cook bigger meals" thing.)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Lyon me*

The last stop on our trip - I swear blogging it has taken longer than it did in real time - was an overnight stopover in Lyon. Traffic and the Millau detour meant we didn't arrive until early evening, but we still had time for a quick walk around the Old Town's narrow, cobbled and touristy streets before dinner.

Lyon is at the confluence of two rivers. This one is the Sâone

In front of a wild horse fountain by the town hall

At certain intervals, steam came through the horses' nostrils, which was pretty cool
Lyon's been on the list for a long time. Everyone seems to like it. One evening and a morning is really not enough, but we had our priorities straight - food. Lyon is often known as the culinary capital of France, and when we're talking France, that's saying a lot. It is particularly known for its bouchons, bistros serving traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, often heavy on the offal. On our first evening, however, we opted to dine chez Paul Bocuse, the legendary Lyonnais chef who has held three Michelin stars for over 50 years. Well, sort of. Nice as that would have been, a three-star restaurant wasn't quite in the plan (or budget). Instead, we dined at one of his brasseries, Le Nord. Food and service weren't quite three star of course, but still a pleasant meal, and we can now say we've dined at a Paul Bocuse establishment at least!

Jules in front of a couple of bouchons in the Old Town
In the morning, it was raining (as I said, the rain followed us around for the whole trip), but that didn't stop us taking Lyon's nifty little funicular up the hillside, where we accidentally but fortuitously got off at the Roman arena. It was still rigged up with a stage and lighting for the annual summer theatre that takes place there - it must be a cool experience, sitting in an ancient theatre with a great view of the city. It was pretty miserable and deserted when we were there though!

My allergy to ironing letting me down again here

View of the theatre and the city
From there, it was a short walk to the Notre Dame Basilica, where we had been intending to go all along. This 19th-century church was as lavishly decorated as the one in Albi, just much newer, brighter and more sparkly. And way more crowded. It was pretty much as noisy and bustling as a nightclub in there, which is never my favourite experience. Pretty though.

The rain had stopped by the time we came out of the basilica, and we were treated to some lovely views over the city.

The domed building in the middle is the Opera House, to the right of the town hall

Looking across the Sâone to the peninsula between the two rivers

I don't know where this was, but I liked the blurred look (I cropped a finger out of the top right-hand corner)
We couldn't leave Lyon without a stop at one of those bouchons I mentioned above. We picked a place that co-ordinated with my outfit and settled in for a three-course lunch. Jules had tripe, which I was even brave enough to try (okay, although it looks pretty gross) and I had the Lyon speciality of pike quenelle. I'd always seen quenelle described as a sort of dumpling, and so I had imagined something quite small. Turned out it was quite big and dense, and covered in a yummy crab (or maybe lobster?) sauce. Delish in any case.

My generously-sized quenelle

As well as food, Lyon is famous for its festival of lights, which always takes place around my birthday. So who knows, maybe one year I'll be back to see all the things we no doubt missed on our very brief stop in Lyon!

*I even like puns that make no sense. Lean on me? No?