Champagne > Bretagne

A shorter drive today – a mere 600 km rather than the thousand-odd of yesterday – but which nicely demonstrates the size of France. I set off from Reims – well away from the German border, and drive more or less in a straight line to Rennes, yes in Brittany, but still far away from the extreme point of Finisterre on the Atlantic.

The day starts in the bucolic French countryside – lots of little villages with stone houses in the midst of the fields of Picardy – for some reason one of my larger customers has a factory out in the sticks! I then move towards the southern suburbs of Paris, passing through Meaux, the homeland of Brie cheese! You would expect lots of lush greenery and happy milk-giving cows, wouldn’t you? WRONG! Meaux is full of traffic, industry and motorways! Lord knows where the cheese is made – presumably in one of the many Zones Industrielles!

The closer I get to Paris the more dire the scenery becomes. I wonder how such a beautiful city can spawn such ugly suburbs, full of high rises and identical Centres Commerciaux, with an obligatory Carrefour/Auchan/Leclerc hypermarket at the core and attendant satellite chains on the periphery.

I see two customers in an industrial zone, then move West out of Paris finding my way through the labyrinth of motorways. Have you seen a map of France recently? Noticed how all roads converge on the capital? So do gazillions of motorists jamming these roads!

With the chaos of the Paris banlieues behind me, I have another meeting near Le Mans, then drive on to Rennes, arriving just after 7 pm. The landscape is green again, with many Friesian cows in the fields – the Beurre de Bretagne has got to come from somewhere, no? Not much to report on Rennes: my Novotel is on the outskirts of town, there is a big thunderstorm on, and I’m not keen on getting wet whilst sightseeing! I opt for the hotel restaurant with a steak frites and an early bedtime!

Long drive…

Start of a hard week’s driving around – I’m going on a tour of my French customers and contacts, and they’re widely spread out! First off to Alsace and Champagne, then into Picardy, skirt around Paris, then over to Brittany, turn around into the Loire Valley, back via Burgundy and Franche-Comté. But the summer days are long, and with any luck there won’t be too much tourist traffic yet.

Today is the long drive. To get anywhere near my first port of call, I have to set off at 7 am, negotiating the busy A4 autostrada over to Milano and then into Switzerland. After the last few hot, sticky weeks, I long to get somewhere cooler but the whole of Europe seems to be a furnace, with even the Swiss mountains bare of any snow. I listen to the news reports as I drive: “ozone levels high…conserve water to avoid shortages…” What?? Water shortages in Switzerland??? But hot it certainly is, touching 38°C in Basel! The A/C in the car is on full blast, but the heat radiates through the glass anyway. At least the roads are clear and I get to my first customer in Strasbourg at 4 pm. Quick meeting, then back on the road again: the motorway around Strasbourg is busy, but the traffic soon clears as I rise up in the Vosges and onto the plain of Lorraine. This must be the place in Europe most similar to the American prairies: endless wheat fields, punctuated by grain silos on the horizon. So boring does the road become, that the motorway is enlivened by colourful geometric shapes, presumably to stop drivers nodding off! I finally make it to Reims, my overnight stop at 20:15, about 1.050 km from Bassano!

I check in the hotel and quickly find a good restaurant: Le Volland Gambetta, in 13, rue Gambetta, between the gothic cathedral and the romanesque St. Rémi. I can eat al fresco, in a courtyard surrounded by flowers.

I am served an amuse-gueule of puréed cucumber, very refreshing, reminiscent of the classic Indian raita, just what is needed on this hot day!

I choose as a starter cuisses de grenouille served with a light creamy risotto. Very delicate, an excellent complement to the frogs! The main course is equally delicate: shrimps in a wonderful saffron and basil sauce, with a cocotte of steamed vegetables.

Reims (together with Epernay), is of course the capital of Champagne, but I can’t bear the stuff! Is this heresy? Maybe, but I find Champagne acid and indigestible, so I choose a cool Pinot Noir Alsace instead!

The dessert is mouthwatering: a tarte aux pommes on a puff pastry base, grilled with cassonade sugar, a drizzle of maple syrup and a ball of vanilla ice cream!

An excellent meal that irons away the tiredness of the day’s drive!

School dinner!

As you may know, the school year is drawing to an end – in the case of Marco’s school, this is celebrated in true Italian manner – yes, by going out to eat – twice!

First occasion last Saturday evening – the whole class goes to an agriturismo – a local farmhouse that also serves meals as a side line (in many cases this sideline is more profitable than the farm work!). The food is plain and simple, and you can’t get more local than this: Risotto agli asparagi as a starter, featuring the white Bassano asparagus. As seconds, a plate of polenta, a few slices of soppressa veneta (a large, rather fatty salame much beloved by the locals but mostly reviled elsewhere..) and fagioli in salsa (brown beans with an anchovy base condiment). A slice of crostata (jam tart) to finish. Large jugs of local plonk, both red and white. Well, I did say it was plain and simple, didn’t I? But on the whole, a suitable place, considering we had 19 kids running around screaming between courses!

Sunday – boiling hot today, but another end-of-year celebration beckons, this time at the school itself, with the whole body of parents, teachers and children present! The kids are entertained with games and amongst the hubbub, the kitchens are commandeered by willing parents and a barbecue is organised to feed the assembled masses (about 250 or so). As the evening draws on and the sun finally sets to general relief, tonnes of sausages, veal chops, and spare ribs are laid to cook on the griddle. No messing about here – the four chefs have a forbidding appearance and anyone proffering “advice” on the cooking is briskly shooed away. The dining room tables are all brought out on the playground and laid out with water and orange juice for the kids and plenty of jugs of vino for the parents.

School dinner.jpg

Finally the meal is ready! Again, the cuisine is simple – what can be more so than a plateful of grilled meat, french fries and coleslaw? And a huge selection of home-made cakes and biscuits to follow! The atmosphere was lively and convivial, the wine and spumante flowed freely, and a great time was had by all!

Amsterdam 2

The KLM flight this morning surprised me! I actually got some decent service and a passable breakfast! And so it bloody should be as the greedy bas****s charge me EUR 1.100 for their monopoly service to Holland. Lemme see, that works out at about 10 medium-priced Ryanair flights or a discount flight to Down Under – I see a niche in the market here – anyone has some cash to spare for a used 737??

Arrival at Schiphol is problem-free as I only have a little trolley, and I smoothly transfer onto a train to the exhibition halls. I am visiting the PLMA show – a large and very crowded exhibition of private label manufacturers – i.e. the suppliers to the big supermarket chains. It turns out to be an excellent visit, and I discover many large and previously unknown sprayer users!

I’m knackered this evening after the early morning start and the walk around the show, so I decide to find a restaurant close by the hotel in Rembrandtplein. Scoping out the offers, a sign catches my eye: Coco’s Outback – Lousy Food and Warm Beer! How could I resist such an offer?? It turns out to be an Aussie pub, the beer (Blanche de Namur) is cold and the Ostrich (!!) steak I choose is lean and tasty! The Noble Regiment continues to serve, even after it has been dispatched to the knacker’s yard!!

Declining the offers of Red Lights, Gay Bars and “Coffee Shops”, I move briskly to bed….

Goede nacht!

Barcelona 3 – a mini guide

Barcelona is one of Europe’s finest regional cities, with an impressive location: it is bordered by the Mediterranean to the South, by the Montjuïc hill to the West (Olympic site, castle, expo) and by the Tibidabo mountain to the North. The climate is exceptionally temperate, with the Tibidabo range sheltering the city from the cold winds coming down from the Pyrennées.

The ancient centre of Barcelona is formed by the Barrì Gotìc, with many exceptional buildings amongst its narrow streets, the Cathedral and the 15C Palau de la Generalitat (seat of Catalonia’s regional government) amongst them.

The modern city of Barcelona began to be developed in the mid 19C following a grid pattern with each street crossing having a unique octagonal shape. This area is known as the Eixample, and in it one can find several of Antoni Gaudì’s architectural works, IMHO inspired by a child’s sandcastle at the beach: La Pedrera, Casa Batllò, and the unfinished Sagrada Familia church.

The centre of Barcelona’s lively nightlife is the Rambla – a wide boulevard from Placa de Catalunya down to the port. The port area itself has been much redeveloped around the time of the 1992 Olympics, and is now a vast waterside entertainment area.

Barcelona 2

Afternoon spent walking up and down the show. It’s not at the usual exhibition hall by the Placa de Espanya, but in a newly built facility towards the airport. Our local distributors are exhibiting here, but I’ve got a few appointments every day until Thursday morning so I’ve time to waste.

Transfer to hotel around 5 pm. The show works on Spanish time (i.e. 10 am to 7 pm), but I’m knackered after my early start (5:30 am wake up call…) The bus from the fair to the city centre is free, too! And it takes a scenic route up the Montjuïc hill where the 1992 Olympic stadium dominates the Barcelona skyline.

I arrive in the hotel. It’s not my usual one, which was full, but another, organised by my travel agent. I’m not pleased: expensive by Spanish standards at EUR 169 a night, small room, walls that appear to be made of cardboard and T located amongst other 4* hotels up towards the top of the Avinguda Diagonal. Why they should place hotels here, I fail to understand. It’s far away from the Barri Gotic, the Rambla or any area of interest to the tourist or businessman. Maybe because the Royal Palace (Catalonia section) is close by?

After a due rest, it’s time for dinner (that is, about 9-10 pm if you observe Spanish custom). After much walking, I decide on a restaurant called El Suquet in Carrer Valencia. Here they offer a menu degustacion of catalan specialities We start with an assortment of cold starters –
bread with tomatoes and olive oil
ditto with jamon iberico
ditto with anchovy fillets and more oil
broad beans
roast spring onion, aubergine and red pepper in yet more olive oil

4 small plates of seconds:
grilled sausage with white beans
meatballs (?) with wine sauce
lamb chop with boiled potatoes in oily sauce
maybe the best of all – bacalhau (salt cod) in a Provencal-like sauce with tomatoes and vegetables.

To follow, crema catalana, that best can be described as a crème caramel brulée.

I’m not a fan of Spanish cuisine, with its tendency to overload dishes with oil, and this effort confirms my suspicions that it requires further evolution!

Kölner Kölsch

Not for want of writing, but gastronomic highlights are few and far between in this teutonic land. Let me attempt a brief description, as now, at 22.57, I am seated in an S-Bahn rolling through every poxy station between the fair cities of Köln and Düsseldorf.

As you may recall, it was decided to spend the evening with my Man in Turkey, who is staying in Köln . Accordingly, we set off from the fairground at closing time, and with the assistance of an Intercity train, we arrived in Köln at 19:15. Rapid visit of the Dom to refresh my knowledge of gothic architecture, then an obligatory shopping visit in Kaufhof to buy wind-up aeroplanes, Barbie doll sets and Gameboy cartridges for the kids – yes, I assure you kids are very expensive!!!

It is raining. We have no raincoat nor brolly. My intended place of call, Em Krütschke in the Altstadt, is firmly geschlossen, being it Montag. Hence we repair to the nearest hostelry, an anonymous Gasthof, where we are offered the most standard germanic fare: Bauernplatte, Herrenplatte, Jägerschnitzel and variations of pork meat in brown sauces, Bratkartoffeln and Krautsalat. Yes, OK every now and then, but tiring after six days in a row!! But my MIT is an entertaining fellow, and we wistfully reminisce about favourite Istanbul kebap establishments.

We exit the Gasthof. It has stopped raining. We head back towards the Hauptbahnhof, but then I make a beeline for an old haunt of mine, Cölner (sic) Hofbräu Früh, maybe my favourite German brewhouse next to Spatenhaus in Munich. This, fellow Gastronauts, is the home of Kölsch, where the Köbes serve the beer direct from the barrel, and the refills arrive as soon as the glasses are emptied. A most delicate amber nectar, light and very drinkable, so much so we down three glasses each before remembering we have to head for Düsseldorf!! The Speisekarte is also very enticing and makes us regret our earlier hurry to get out of the rain!

Gute nacht!

more German food…

German food is not known for its lightness and delicacy. Rheinischer Sauerbraten or Düsseldorfer Senfrostbraten are staples. At this time of year you can get Spargel – asparagus – , but they insist on smothering it with Hollandaise Sauce, accompanied by Wienerschnitzel and gigantic Beilagen.

Yesterday night was different as we went with my Man in Japan and friend to a Japanese restaurant: sushi, sashimi, grilled eel, rice, pickles, Altbier, Pils, warm and cold sake. Proceedings were enlivened by a loud group of Japanese at the next table. MIJ commented that Japanese abroad behave in a less constrained manner than at home – hence get drunk and rowdy!

We are feeling somewhat tired after several days on the go and with the dreary wet weather. So tonight has been decreed rest night and I will relax with my latest Harry Potter instalment.

Monday night has been booked with my Man in Turkey. We will take a train down to Köln and go straight to Früh am Dom – a real Cologne institution where the Köbes (waiters) serve you Kölsch non-stop. Kölsch is a most wonderful light beer that slips effortlessly down your throat!

Ein Prosit!

Düsseldorf

Exhibition time again – I’m spending the week (!) at our largest trade show in Germany. Finally got to Düsseldorf last Monday at 18:15. 1.025 km exactly from Bassano, in about 11 hours. Not bad going, considering the endless sequence of Baustellen on the Autobahnen. Seems as if Schröder wants to spruce up the roads before the election, but has failed miserably.

Arrive in hotel to discover it’s a DUMP. An EXPENSIVE DUMP! Not that it’s dirty or anything serious, but at DM 300 a night for a single I’d expect wallpaper that wasn’t peeling, sheets with no holes and a telephone with some minimal kind of connectivity to hook a modem. I don’t even have the option of moving elsewhere as it has all been paid for in advance. Never mind. I console myself with the idea that I won’t be in the room for much anyway.

Evening meal at my one of my favourite Düsseldorf breweries, Schumacher in the Oststrasse. House motto: “Ein jeder spricht vom vielen trinken, aber keiner spricht vom grossen Durst“. Standard German brewery fare: Eisbein, Haxe, Schlachtplatte and variants of hearty dishes. To drink: what else but the famed Altbier! This will be the Leitmotiv for every evening in Düsseldorf. Other good addresses for you: Brauerei Frankenheim in the Wielandstrasse, Zum Schlüssel in the Bolkerstrasse and Zum Uerige in the Bergerstrasse!

Tonight, being it Friday night, is pub crawl Abend: with my Man in Japan, Man in UK and Woman in Switzerland and assorted hangers-on. Should be fun!

Exception: Japanese meal on Saturday night with MIJ and the head honcho of the company I visited in Nara last January. It’s the return match and I will be paying!!!

The Messe itself is VERY, VERY BUSY! I hardly have the time to uncork a bottle of wine or gouge a piece of Parmigiano extravecchio that hordes of punters invade the stand. Great to be rushed off one’s feet.

Osaka 3 – The Karaoke bar!

Soo….I am in Osaka, having slept like a baby after my full sauna/bath/scrub down/massage treatment the previous evening. Today’s schedule involves a trip to visit the factory and head office of a cap making company. I have met the boss of the company before, he came to visit us in Italy two years ago and his underlings came last year. We haven’t done any business together, mind you. In the inscrutable Japanese manner, we have “built relationship” and my MIJ assures me this will be “most valuable” in the future. We will see.

The company is way out in the countryside, so we take a train out of Osaka towards Nara. We get off at a station surrounded by rice fields, take a cab and go to the factory. We are greeted by the Prez. With him are his two underlings. They are identically dressed in the light grey company uniform. The meeting proceeds in a friendly but formal Japanese manner: no need to exchange biz cards this time as we have already met, but we have a formal exchange of gifts. Gift-giving is a very important part of Japanese biz culture, and here it is not the actual value of the gift that matters, but the manner of the presentation and the quality of the exterior wrapping. Hence the gift is presented with two hands, with much bowing and scraping. It is opened not in the presence of the giver, but later. I give a bottle of grappa to Little Tofu, and a box of chocs to his minions. I receive in return an exquisitely wrapped box of Japanese sweets. We drink green tea.

Factory visit ensues. I don white overalls and hair cap, then observe whirring machinery and smile politely. Back to the meeting room. The underlings open their notebooks, and evidently reading from a prepared script, one of them asks in English “What do you think of our factory?”. I reply with polite generalities. More polite questions and answers, then it’s my turn to ask: “How do you propose to distribute our products?” Much discussion in Japanese ensues, then a reply: “We will create a new division!” Well, I am sure they could do that, but it’s not exactly a marketing strategy. Further questions entice no greater details. Nevertheless, they seem confident enough, I sincerely hope that the famed Japanese “relationships” and “connections” will lead to concrete results.

We leave the factory in the Prez’s car, on the way to their R&D centre about 30 km away. We stop for lunch at a Japanese fast-food restaurant looking just like an American diner. From a glossy menu with pics, I order soba – cold noodles with deep-fried prawn. A quick meal, nice and tasty.

On the way to the R&D Centre, we have time for a little sightseeing: The Todai-ji Buddhist temple in Nara is one of the wonders of ancient Japan and we stop to have a look.

Within beautiful parkland (full of hungry Japanese deer!) stands a gigantic wooden shrine, apparently the largest all-wood structure in the world. The original building dates back to 728, but unsurprisingly, was destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times.

Within the shrine is an equally gigantic bronze statue of the Vairocana Buddha, known as Daibutsu, portrayed sitting on a lotus leaf with right hand raised in blessing. This statue dates back to 749. I am very impressed, and so is MIJ, who has never been here before.

The Company’s R&D centre is impressive, with many researchers in the regulation company uniform sitting in front of CAD/CAM workstations. A video is shown, more introductions are made and business cards exchanged with all and sundry. Another green tea, then much formal taking of leave: “we are honoured to have received your visit, look forward to long and positive collaboration, blah, blah…”. I bow politely and murmur similar platitudes. The formal meetings at an end, we make an appointment to meet the Prez and his underlings at our hotel for dinner.

18.30 – dinner time! The Japanese eat early! The Prez leads us through the streets of Osaka and we enter what appears to be a large private house. This is in fact a posh restaurant, kimono-clad ladies greet us at the entrance, we remove our shoes and are taken to a private dining room with view over a small garden pond. Tatami mats on the floor, a low table, equally low chairs. Two large pots full of water and a few leaves of seaweed are brought and set to boil in front of us.

We are about to eat shabu-shabu, yet another style of Japanese cuisine! The kimonoed ladies busily bring it plates full of ingredients to be set to cook in the water: mainly large plates of very thinly sliced Kobe beef. Have you heard of Kobe beef? Only in Japan do you find this delectable meat, taken from cows that are fed a diet including beer and that are given a regular massage!! The beer stimulates the appetite in hot summer months and the massage, well, reduces stress and muscle stiffness. Logical, isn’t it? Result: Highly tender meat, with a marbled appearance as the fat is distributed, and is not just on the edges. Literally melts in the mouth. Price: Don’t ask…

So the water boils, and we put in the slices of beef to cook. A quick swish around with the chopsticks (shabu-shabu literally means swish-swish), a dip into sesame seed or soy sauce and into the mouth – Delicious! Mushrooms, tofu and some greenery are also put in the pot as a side dish. We drink Asahi Super Dry beer and cold sake. Incidentally, drinking etiquette in Japan requires that you never pour your own drinks but they are poured out for you. The instant I take a drink from my glass and set it down, it is refilled by the Prez, and I do the same for him. Needless to say, glasses that are always full increase alcoholic consumption! Amongst cries of “Kanpai!” (Cheers) the evening proceeds merrily. Ritual photographs are taken, more bowing from the kimono ladies and then we are ready to leave.

But the evening isn’t finished yet! The Prez leads us through the streets to an apartment block. We enter a lift, get out a few floors up then enter a karaoke bar! The Japanese name for a karaoke bar is “boxssu“, which is very apt as the entire place is no larger than my bedroom! A bar lines one wall, a TV is above it and a lady pours the drinks – which here is whisky! The back wall is lined with bottles of whisky all neatly labelled with a name: the idea being that you buy one bottle, drink some of it and then save it for another time at the same boxssu. We sit on a settee opposite the bar, two other punters with a couple of girls are sitting on bar stools, drink in hand, ready to sing! You must know the basic operation of karaoke: thousands of different songs are listed in a book the size of a telephone directory, you take your pick, punch in the corresponding number on a remote control and when the song comes up on the TV screen, you get up and sing! The Prez does his song and he has excellent voice. Now I actually quite like singing, but as my voice resembles the call of a male bullfrog, I am rather embarrassed to sing in public… but then again, a few whiskeys on ice loosen all inhibitions! My greater problem is that my choice of songs is limited to a few pages of that directory and my Japanese friends insist that I sing “canzone“. Canzone is Italian for song, but I interpret their request as being one for Neapolitan songs! Not my genre at all… and I can’t read Neapolitan dialect either! But here goes… I launch my Luciano Pavarotti impression with Domenico Modugno’s “Volare”, then a duet of “O Sole Mio” with one of the girls, change of rhythm with U2s “With or Without You”, grand finale with another Neapolitan classic, “Santa Lucia”. I am rapturously received, glasses of whisky are poured, recording contracts are signed….no, no, forget that last bit! Anyway, we get out of the boxssu content. We have truly cemented our “working relationship” and are thoroughly pissed!

Ah well, this concludes my trip to Japan. Will I be back? I’d love to, but MIJ had better get some serious business going first!