Monday, April 13, 2015

Not so black, and not so foresty

Quick, what comes to mind when I say Black Forest? Cake, probably. But think again, what do you imagine the region of the Black Forest to look like? A forest... that's black? Dark, mossy, overhanging, intertwining trees gloomily lowering over impenetrable undergrowth, with here and there a man in lederhosen, axe in hand, angrily chasing after a fleeing German Mädchen? What a coincidence, me too! But, while I'll admit we only strayed through a tiny portion of the High Black Forest, it looked completely different from what I imagined.

I never realised it was so hilly. We got up to over 900 metres on our drive from Freiburg to Uberlingen on Lake Constance, and there was even still snow on the ground up there. (And, in fact, isolated flurries of snow in the air too on our way back home.) The weather on Friday was gorgeous, and it was a beautiful day for a drive.

I missed this photo off the last post, so had to add it here because it's so cute! (I know, if I say so myself)

Snowy blurry car action shot

We took a small detour to the Titisee, mostly because it's funny to say Titisee. I burst out laughing at Easter dinner at Jules's mum's because people said Titisee too many times for me to handle. Mature. We only stayed there for a total of about 20 minutes, enough to park, walk down to the lake, take a few photos, and walk back. It was buuuus-y! I don't know how it gets in summer, but it was already crowded and very touristy, with chalet-style buildings and cuckoo clocks as far as the eye can see in the small town centre. The lake is pretty though, and the town cute albeit cheesy.

I don't know how it is in other countries, but Germany is not really talked up as a tourist destination in my experience. At home it's all France and Italy, Eastern Europe if you're looking for a bit of exoticism or a stag weekend, Spain for sunshine, the UK for history, catching up with family or working in a bar for a couple of years, but Germany's not really on the radar. Berlin, of course, but you never really hear much about other parts of Germany, and it's only in the last year or so, when I've been living on its borders, that I've really started to explore a little bit. So far, it seems full of really cute picture-book towns, and this weekend was really a surprise with how lovely some of the scenery is. 

Titisee panorama - look how clear the water is

I'm wearing the same clothes in like all my blog posts. I suppose if something works for you (hopefully), why not stick with it? Plus this dress is super comfy

This says Titsee and Fart (almost). Schoolgirl giggling ensues and continues for the next 20 minutes. Signs saying 'fahrt' may be my very favourite thing about Germany

Titisee snowball fight!
After our brief detour, we continued on to Uberlingen, on the shores of Lake Constance, in time for a long stroll along the lake front, an icecream, and a beer slash wine on a terrace in the sun. Great day, and we got to make the most of the nice weather, which was good.

When I discovered we were staying in the Bad Hotel, I was all...

This is the other side of the Bad Hotel - it's secretly actually very nice! We had a lovely big room on the corner, not with a lake view unfortunately, but windows on two sides

Street in Uberlingen

Panorama of Lake Constance

On the Uberlingen lakefront

Two ships crossing in the night day

From snow at Titisee to daffodils in Uberlingen on the same day

The sculptor gives the unfortunate impression that Jesus is worshipping a pile of poo
We had a definitely not-Michelin-starred but tasty rösti dinner in a traditional(esque) German restaurant to finish our first evening in Uberlingen.

Jules is happy with his beer

While I'm not used to having wine glasses the size of my head after too many years in France!

Oh and the million-dollar question - did we have Black Forest gateau? < Whispers > I actually don't like it, so no!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Easter break: Three-star dining and charming Freiburg

So, first my birthday present from Jules was a digital camera. This was "sent back" in what everyone seems to think was a) rude and b) foolish, since my current digital camera is not that great. But, in my defence, I already have a digital camera. It just seems wasteful to replace one that works perfectly fine, if a little slowly. The second birthday present idea was a January trip to Lisbon, which sounded great, but in the end we couldn't find something that didn't work out as horrendously expensive for a quick weekend break.

And then, as we were discussing options for the Easter weekend, it somehow came up that we should visit the Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace, and that this should be my birthday present. Jules had waxed lyrical about this place a few times - visiting with his grandfather, who loved to pop by on the way to business trips in Switzerland, meeting the late chef Paul Haeberlin there, who first earned the restaurant its third Michelin star in 1967 (amazingly, it has retained them ever since), and raving about the fantastic foie gras. So, half of me listening to that is like, "aw, what nice memories" and I gotta be honest, the other half is all

Ain't no three-star restaurants in New Zealand! But haters are only going to hate until they themselves get invited to said three-star restaurant, and then enthusiastically leap at the chance. So on Thursday morning, we drove down to Alsace from Luxembourg, through pouring rain and roadworks the entire way, arriving about half an hour late but still lucky enough to be given the best table in the house, right in front of a bay window looking over the river and restaurant garden.

Panorama from our table

It was all quite fancy and I was a bit nervous - Jules, of course, is more at ease and generally helps me out, although I got quite flustered with the sommelier because I always feel like a dolt for not drinking white wine even if I have fish. The service, I must say, was impeccable. I spent quite a long time in the bathroom between courses - they had Japanese-style toilets which I had to play with (heated seats - bit weird, really - buttons that made the seat and the lid go up and down, and a bidet function that I was too scared to experiment with) and pictures of some of the famous guests in the corridor on the way to the loos. Queen Elizabeth and her Mum have eaten there, along with various European royals and statesmen, and French celebrities like Johnny Hallyday and Yannick Noah etc. And now me! But anyway, as I came back into the dining room I overheard a sotto voce "elle est là" from someone, and our meals arrived about 30 seconds later, so I'd probably been stressing the chef out with my extended ablutions.

Entrée - salmon soufflé, quite different from what I imagined, with basically a whole salmon steak in there

Pigeon stuffed with incredibly rich foie gras - I'm sorry my photo didn't capture how crazy long the pigeon leg was!

My favourite course, of course, an assortment of chocolate icecream, mousse, cake etc. presented so beautifully (I'd love to own that plate too)

Happy Jules has a coffee after our feast

One of the waiters took our photo in the garden (sheltering from the drizzle, that is)
Our ultimate holiday destination was the Bodensee/Lake Constance, but we stayed in nearby Freiburg, Germany, on Thursday night since our lunch took several hours and we had already driven all the way down to Alsace that day. Even though it rained torrentially and even hailed on our way in to the city (it cleared up later), I fell for Freiburg straight away. I can't put my finger on it, but it just seemed like one of those places that would be great to live in. The streets were super-cute and charming, it seemed to have some life to it without being too busy, the lady we asked for directions was probably the friendliest German I've ever encountered, and we grabbed provisions for a hotel-room picnic dinner in an awesome supermarket. (Seriously, I love exploring supermarkets in foreign countries, who's with me?)

Central Freiburg

Awesome building

Most of the streets in the centre were covered with intricate cobblestone designs. The streets also featured the water drains you can see on the right - although many were larger than this one and a bit of a hazard to be honest!

More cobblestone art - in front of a knife shop, appropriately enough (what happens if they close down though? Just a sinister knife left on the pavement for no reason. "Oh yeah, come visit my pet store, I totally don't stab any of the bunnies, ever.")

It was forecast to rain solidly for our whole trip, so it was a lovely surprise that Good Friday was actually a beautiful day. We woke up in Freibourg and had brunch at Café Extrablatt, a chain we also ate at in Aachen, which does a good-value buffet brunch in a trendy atmosphere (and this one is right next to the river, which is nice). It seems to be a popular hangout with students, probably due to the all-you-can-eat factor - we stuffed in so much breakfast food that we skipped lunch. The waiter even asked if we were Freiburg students, which made me feel like a young dickelchen (Luxembourgish for a young chick, as in both the poultry and female versions).

We then took the opportunity to work off breakfast with a gruelling trek up the 116-m spire of the Munster, some of it on a very narrow spiral staircase, in order to see the beautiful sunlit view of Freiburg from the top. It was tough, but worth it!

Freiburg Munster

Beautiful, bright statues in the portico

View over the towers of the (?) nave

Me and Jules at the top

Looking down at the square below

Peeping through the stonework

Amongst other things, you can see the lovely red Merchants' Hall in the foreground
The Munsterplatz from ground level

I'm sorry we didn't get more time to explore Freiburg's charms, but it was such a lovely day (with rain forecast again the next day) that we were eager to move on through the Black Forest to Lake Constance while the weather held... But that will have to wait for another post!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Champagne supernova

On Saturday, we headed out of Reims and took the scenic route to Epernay, trying to follow the Route des Vins as much as possible (tricky since it wasn't signposted out of Reims, so we just headed towards a village that seemed good and picked it up at some random point along the way). Saturday wasn't quite as wonderfully sunny as Friday, but we still got some nice weather, especially for our lunch in Hautvillers, which was nice.

Stopped off at some random point on the road and hiked up to an old church on a hill (unfortunately closed) to take a few snapshots:

A pretty cool photo, if I do say so myself! It looks like we were up really early in the morning, but this is actually slightly later than the photo below, it was just really hazy down in the valley. Pity the vines are still bare!

I look like I'm wearing a romper

Pensive moment in the vineyard (or am I just trying to get my hair out of my eyes?)

We stopped off in Hautvillers and visited the grave of Dom Perignon himself, which was fun although the abbey where he's buried isn't otherwise especially noteworthy. But our lunch on the terrace at Au 36 was a highlight. The staff were actually very friendly and accommodating, which of course is not always the case in France, we shared two glasses of champers (plus an extra for me) for a very reasonable price, and they served up a delicious tapas-style selection of Reims specialities. The pâté en croute, boudin blanc and mini potato and ham galettes were to die for. And that giant pink thing on the side was a rose and raspberry macaron! Jules had the slightly less exciting duck platter, but I did let him try all of mine, so he didn't come out of it too badly.


Wine tasting at Hautvillers - we tried chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier-based champagnes - it was interesting how different they tasted, with the pinot noir my favourite. Most champagnes are actually blends of two or three of these grapes ("assemblages")
Once in Epernay, we headed to the famous Avenue de Champagne, home of many prestigious champagne houses. Unfortunately it seems we were a little early in the season, as all of the beautiful ones pictured below seemed to be closed and were shut away behind elaborate wrought-iron gates (I poked my camera through). It still made for impressive viewing though, and it was nice not to be surrounded by coach-loads of tourists.

This one was the nicest, I think it's Perrier

The town hall

Part of Moët and Chandon's massive property, on both sides of the street. If you ever doubted there's money to be made in champagne, just come here and see the magnificent palaces the big houses occupy
We stopped for a tasting at one of the only places that seemed to be open, A. Bergère, and enjoyed a zero dose champagne in the sunshine and peace and quiet. I'm a little bit obsessed with zero dose sparkling wines, since having a fantastic (but, frustratingly, not for sale) zero dose Montlouis at the Tours wine festival. If you don't know, dosage is the amount of sugar added to the wine in the final stage, after they take the sediment out and before they put the cork on. Brut, the standard dosage you probably drink most often, can have up to 15 grams of residual sugar per litre, whereas zero dose (also called Brut Nature) has no added sugar and no more than 3 grams total. Apparently back in the day people used to like their champagnes ridiculously sweet - with up to 50 grams of sugar per litre, but tastes have changed and more and more winemakers are experimenting with low or zero dosages. This is apparently aided by climate change producing grapes with more natural sugar in them, thus eliminating the need for added dosage. The A. Bergère champers wasn't my favourite of the trip (that would be the 2004 Joseph Perrier we had at Le Foch) but it was interesting and I'd definitely love to try some more - I hate sweet wine!

Me and my zero dose
We then took a tour of de Castellane, which was not a name I recognised, but you've probably seen the white bottles with a red diagonal cross on them. They also have a very pretty building with a 66 metre-high tower (which we walked up, exhausting) - a former water tower. It was an interesting contrast to the tour I took of Taittinger with my sister. That basically just shows you the chalk cellars and it all looks very traditional and oldy-worldy. Although you go into the caves at de Castellane as well, you also tour through their factory and get to see the modern process of how champagne is made today. It would be interesting (although I suppose noisy) to see it during the week, when the factory is actually operational. They bottle a phenomenal amount each day, I can't remember how much, but tens of thousands of bottles every day from just one champagne house, and not even a particularly big-name one (although I think it is a very solid mid-range supermarket champagne).

Outside de Castellane

We walked up a horrible spiral starcase to the first level of windows in the octagonal turret

I love my champagne friend!
View from the top - not hugely scenic, but the river was an amazing green colour
We capped off the evening with a tasting of six champagnes (between us) at C comme Champagne. I was really hoping for more of a guided/commented dégustation, which we didn't really get across the whole weekend. In fairness though, the bartender did give us a quick rundown of what we would be tasting at the beginning and then answered some of the questions we had. For example, I finally learned what makes some sparkling wines bubblier than others. It's not the amount of yeast or sugar, as I had thought, but how long they are aged. Wines that are aged for longer will have more delicate and fewer bubbles than younger wines. The barman sniffily commented that that's why Alsace wines are particularly bubbly - "they don't age them at all, amateurs". That actually makes sense to me, because I prefer finer bubbles and it does seem that you are more likely to get that with a more expensive wine, which of course means that the vinter has to be able to afford and have the space to keep the wines in the cellar for longer.

Our selection of champagnes for the evening
After getting up before 6 am on Sunday to watch the first (sadly, dull) F1 race of the season, we returned to C comme Champagne and A Bergere to make some purchases with the car on hand to haul our booty away, and then we headed back to Brussels so that Jules would have the time for a rest before having to drive back to Luxembourg (poor thing). On the way, probably the most exciting part of our mini break happened - an encounter with the largest wild boar in the world!!

His name is Woinic, he weighs 50 tonnes and was made out of steel by one dude pretty much just as a hobby over 11 years.

Pretty awesome

Excitement levels were very high for this boar encounter, I can tell you. What better way to finish off a lovely anniversary weekend?