Christmas

Christmas has come and gone, with its usual festive cookery. In our family we have a so-called “cena di magro” on the 24th, as well as a main Christmas lunch on the 25th. The Cena di Magro is supposedly lighter fare, based on fish, in expectation of the heavier celebratory meal the following day.

We had an assortment of antipasti – prawns with insalata russa, pâté of salmon, tuna mousse in aspic, home-made pickled artichokes, olives and baby onions. As a first course, tagliatelle con zucchine e gamberetti (courgettes and prawns).
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Main course of Scottish smoked salmon and gravadlax, with a side of mixed salad.

Dessert of Panettone together with a delectable Zabaglione alle mele e cannella (with apples and cinnamon).

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The wine was an excellent Gewürztraminer from Alto Adige/Südtirol, namely Feldmarschall von Fenner zu Feldberg 1999, from Kellerei Tiefenbrunner, one of the highest vineyards on the world, located at over 1000 m.!

Christmas lunch was a panic start, as once we had lazily arisen, kids opened presents and had our selves dressed in suitable attire, it was already 11:15! Aargh! Rush to switch on the oven and get the roast in! This is only natural, what would a Christmas lunch be, without a panic in the kitchen and the chefette throwing sharpened boning knives at anyone entering her lair? The guests troop in at the appointed time, (well, the guest, my mother!) whist I try to wave away the burning smells with a teatowel. I fix her a quick G&T an instruct her to look after the kids whilst I assist the chefette. Finally, we are ready:

First course: Consommé with cappelletti (little tortellini) e capellini (little tagliatelle). Wine: Clivi Brazan 1998, Brazzano di Cormons (Collio Goriziano – just on the borders with Slovenia)

Main course: Roast veal with olive and shallot stuffing, side of duchesse potatoes, caramelised shallots and grilled radicchio di Treviso. Wine: Teroldego Rotaliano Zeni (an excellent full-bodied red, from an area between Trento and Bolzano)

Dessert: Bavarese al Vin Santo, more panettone, nuts, chocs. Wine: Vin Santo Antinori

What can I say – everything was absolutely delicious, hats off to the chefette, not to mention the woman who knows how to make me happy, Luisella!

Verona

With all the Christmas shopping done last week, we decided for an excursion on Saturday with a visit to Verona, always a lively town and just one hour away from our home.

The weather was fine and not too cold, so we wandered around, with stops at the Arena and along the commercial Via Mazzini on the way to Piazza delle Erbe. By this time it was lunchtime and we decided to stop at La Taverna di Via Stella in Via Stella 5c. This is just round the corner from the family home of the Capuleti (you know, the balcony where Giulietta pined for her Romeo, etc, etc.), so this homely trattoria is frequented by tourists, but also by local office workers and shopkeepers who stop at the bar and have a glass of wine and a selection of the many antipasti offered. The large dining room is attractively furnished with wide benches and tables with proper linen tablecloths and napkins, and friendly and attentive service – most important when dining with kids! The wine list has a selection of a couple of hundred bottles, with a dozen also available by the glass.

The menu is decidedly regional, with polenta being the staple, but the quality is quite a few steps above the ordinary trattoria level. I chose the Ravioli della Taverna as the first course, very delicate with a cheese filling and sprinkled with assorted herbs.
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A glass of Lugana (the white wine grown on the southern shore of Lago di Garda) went very well with it. As a second, I selected the Pastissada de Caval, a typical veronese dish – a hearty horsemeat stew cooked with red wine and juniper berries, served with polenta. Very tasty indeed. Unfortunately I had selected a glass of Valpolicella to accompany it, but this proved to be a wrong choice as the Pastissada completely overwhelmed the taste of the wine. I should have chosen something decidedly more robust.

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As a dessert, I chose a Sbrisolona, a crumbly, buttery tart, rather like a large biscuit, another typical dish of the Veneto. Here I felt really in need of a dessert wine, and after a quick consultation with our friendly waiter, I was brought a glass of Passito di Pantelleria – mellow, fruity and just with the right degree of sweetness! Excellent.

Highly recommended and excellent value at EUR 95 for five.

Paris – Thursday

Evening out tonight with my Turkish distributor and his wife. As you know, I have visited him several times and he is a good friend as well as a customer, so a nice soirée is in prospect. I select the venue: Le Petit Zinc in Rue St. Benoit, just off Boulevard St. Germain in the Left Bank. Not far from Vagenende where we went on Monday.

Thursday evening is late shopping night in Paris, and you know the ladies have to submit to retail therapy, so we arrange a late booking at 21:30. Petit Zinc’s ambience is fantastic as usual: a large oval dining room on three levels, colourfully illuminated by Art-Nouveau lampshades. We are seated right in the middle of the oval, with a grand view of our fellow diners.

The menu arrives with the regulation apéritif: after some hesitation, I select a so-called Salade Folle as a starter – this seems enticing but turns out to be a mistake! I receive a mâche and chicorée salad with four shrimps and a slice of warm foie gras. A folly it certainly is – the ingredients were individually good, but the mixture of the three left much to be desired! Avoid!

My guests choose instead the plateau dégustation de huitres – a selection of four different types of oysters, from the various regions of “ostreiculture” in France. They report that a difference can indeed be tasted, but oysters are not much to my liking, so I decline the offer to try.

As a second, we all have an excellent salmon tartare – very good with fresh slices of baguette, and certainly a recipe I must find in time for the Christmas dinner. A good bottle of Chablis 2001 goes down very well with things fishy.

Dessert: I love those French classics, so a tarte tatin is my choice – the classic upside-down pie, but with a variation, as this is made with pears instead of apples.

After the coffee we set out back to the hotel, past one in the morning!! Le Petit Zinc is highly recommended for an evening when you’re out to impress, who knows, maybe to escort a good friend…

Paris – Wednesday

Exhibition day much as yesterday: slow start, but livening up in the afternoon. More customers turned up, my bubbly Woman in Portugal, a few new contacts. Back in the hotel at 19:00, quick wash and brush-up and out at 20:00 for dinner!

Tonight’s guest is my gastronome Belgian distributor. After some perusal of the Red Book, we decide to try a new spot to us, but well-known in Parisian gastronomic lore: Fermette Marbeuf 1900, 5, r. Marbeuf, 75008 Paris, tel: 01 53 23 08 00 Just off the Avenue Georges V, near the Pont de l’Alma.

Good impression right from the start: a beautiful Art Nouveau décor, with a dining room shaped like a conservatory, with colourful tiles and stained glass walls. We have a Kir Royale to get us going as we peruse the menu. I decide on the Foie Gras de Canard layered with cèpes, accompanied by a glass of Sauternes, followed by a Magret de Canard aux épices, with a side of puréed turnips. The foie gras is a melt-in-the-mouth experience and the duck is just parfait. A good bottle of Bordeaux 2000 (sorry, forgot which cru!).

And the desserts! I had profiteroles as I have never tasted before, with vanilla ice cream instead of whipped cream in the choux pastry and a very dark chocolate sauce. My partners chose Crèpes Suzette (served by the waiter with appropriate flourish) and a crispy Tarte au Pommes with a ball of apple sorbet on top.

Warmly recommended! Prices to match the high standards of cuisine!

Paris – Tuesday

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Aah! A busy show day together with my Portuguese and English agents. These two fifty-something ladies are talkative, bubbly characters and also have a business relation together. They have a whale of a time reminiscing of assorted incidents on a recent trip to Portugal. A lively ambience is called for, so I select Le Grand Café in Boulevard de Capucines.

The ambience is the usual 1900’s Art Nouveau style, our table is on the verandah overlooking the Boulevard – just the spot for people-watching! And people-watch I must, as my two companions are late! They appear after 45 minutes, claiming to have mislaid addresses, delayed taxis, etc…..methinks they have just gone shopping! Anyway, after a quick apéritif (A Kir Royale for me), we get down to the nitty-gritty: I choose to go for the seafood tonight, and order a plate of langoustines and crevettes grises. These are served as usual on the platter of ice, with a side of brown bread and mayonnaise. A nutcracker, steel toothpick and an L-shaped fork device to get at the innards of the langoustines. I spend a happy hour cracking them open and getting at the succulent meat within. The tiny little crevettes grises are also excellent, but require rather more effort in peeling them open. My partners instead choose escargots and sole meunière, and foie gras and a magret de canard. A good Pouilly Fumé washes everything down.

Dessert: I decline the superb Moelleux au Chocolat , and plump for the Parisian classic – the Crème Brulée. The shiny sugar crust gives way with a satisfying crack, the creamy, eggy interior is simply délicieux!!

Paris – Monday

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First day of the exhibition. It’s rather slow to get going, but then we had a steady flow of visitors, mostly our existing customers and distributors. Competitors also came along to talk shop. The Parmesan was attacked and red wine flowed. Travel back to Paris on the RER jam-packed with exhibitors and visitors, but I manage to win a scramble for a seat.

An so on to dinner tonight – I select an old favourite of mine that I used to frequent regularly but then dropped as once they failed to honour a reservation because I had arrived a mere 10 minutes late! But for good food, I am willing to forgive and give them a second chance, so here we are: Restaurant Vagenende, 142 Boulevard St. Germain, 75006 Paris. Tel. 01 43 26 68 18. In the heart of the Quartier Latin. Beautiful 1900s mirror décor.

We start with an unusual apéritif: a glass of Crémant d’Alsace, perfumed with an essence of violets. Sweetish, but a lovely aroma! Accompanied by an amuse-gueule of croûtons with olive paste. As entrée, I have Feuilleté de Chèvre Chaud, a wonderful creamy goat’s cheese, served on crisp puff pastry on a bed of frisée salad and a good spoonful of acacia honey! My partner chooses a Tartare de Saumon fouttée à la crème, I do recall I had this dish ages ago and it still looks delicious.

Our seconds arrive: Carrè d’agneau rôti au thym, with a side of gratin dauphinois. The lamb chops are tender and juicy, but maybe a little too fatty – it’s the wrong season! My partner instead opts for a tender melt-in-the-mouth fillet with a two-pepper sauce. A bottle of Médoc Château Carcanieux 1997 accompanies our meal.

Dessert – a high point for Vagenende: the crème brulée vanille bourbon here is an unctuous delicacy, but I leave that for my partner, whilst I have a croustillant chocolat crème anglaise – a cylinder of mousse au chocolat placed on a chocolate biscuit with a light vanilla and chocolate custard. A must for chocaholics like me!

OK, Vagenende, all is forgiven! I’m a loyal customer again!

Paris – Sunday

Long lie in this morning. We take advantage of being bambini-free, and I arise at 10:30. I avoid the overly expensive hotel breakfast (a mere EUR 20!), go to the local café and partake of a croissant, jus d’orange and a café au lait. Just what we need to start the day in France and to prepare to build the exhibition stand where we will spend the rest of the week.

We hop in the car and drive through quiet Sunday morning streets up to the Périphérique and on to the A1 northwards. Just before CDG airport are the giant Villepinte exhibition halls. As usual on the day before exhibitions, the place is a hive of activity, with workmen hammering, sawing and driving fork lift trucks at top speed. We unload our exhibition essentials (Parmesan, red wine, espresso, a couple of brochures….) and locate our stand. Our stand builders are there, but…..the stand is not according to the agreed plan! Frantic phone calls to Italy follow and we determine that the workmen’s boss had given them the wrong drawings!! More phone calls to our stand designer, we agree on a new plan that can be made with the materials to hand. The final result is decent enough, but we wasted much time and then had to hang around whilst the builders finished the job. We get back to the hotel at about 20:45, totally knackered!

Moules.jpgNo desire to go miles out to eat, so we go to the nearby Chez Léon, a chain of Belgian mussel restaurants. The ladies have a panful of mussels each, but I can’t stand the things, so I make do with a steak frites and a large Affligem. Collapse into bed afterwards.

Paris – Saturday

Long drive over to Paris – we manage to do 1.100 odd km. in 11 hours. Rain and storm in Italy and much of France, but the weather cleared as we approached the Ville Lumière.

We check in our hotel. The Holiday Inn in the Place de la République is a large establishment, housed in a Napoleon III era building, with a large central courtyard. The room is not large, but comfortable, a good place to spend a week in.

chez Jenny.jpgHowever, the hotel has no private parking! I have to drive around for an hour before I find a garage that has a free space! With this, we don’t go out to eat until 9:30, so I choose the nearby Chez Jenny, in the Boulevard du Temple. This is a brasserie alsacienne, with lots of choucroute varieties, groaning with sausage, bacon, jarret de porc and so on. But we are tired and decide on simpler fare: I choose a Foie Gras de Canard avec marmelade d’oignons, followed by a Steak Tartare avec frites. My partners also have the Tartare, but choose Escargots and Frisée salad as starters. A good bottle of Gewürztraminer Riquewihr 2000 with a lovely fruity bouquet refreshes our taste buds.

USA 4 – Grand Canyon

Saturday – we check out from Bally’s and collect our hire car – nothing fancy – a Chevy Cavalier with usual incomprehensible ding-dong noises and crazy “central locking system” that requires you to press an assortment of buttons. Have GM never heard of keys?

Never mind. It’s a fine cloudless day and we’re off to the Grand Canyon! First direction on US 93 towards Arizona. About half an hour out from Vegas we are in Boulder City and have a hill top view of the shimmering waters of giant Lake Mead. Surreal in a dry desert country. Soon after, we pass by the reason for this lake: the giant Hoover Dam, an engineering wonder built between 1931 and 1934. We’d like to stop and visit the museum, but we have no time, there are still many miles to the Canyon! Security at the dam is strict: no buses and trucks allowed at all, all cars and RVs have to pass a security check. Uncle Osama has not been caught and they’re evidently taking no chances.

US 93 continues into Arizona desert country. First we pass through barren brown mountains stretching away for miles on all sides. Then through a flat, featureless desert. The road is straight as an arrow for thirty miles or so, disappearing ahead into a mirage. This is the great American West, the landscape is huge and there are few signs of human habitation. The sky is equally huge, and the few clouds dotting it are a vivid part of the scene. How come we don’t notice it in our everyday life?

We get to Kingman, Arizona (“the heart of historic Route 66”), grab a coke and bagful of beef jerky, and join I-40, the main interstate heading east from L.A. The traffic is mainly the huge American trucks with number plates from all over the US: Maine, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee…. Incidentally, the speed limits are generous (75 mph on I-40, 65 on the state roads), and there are no snarling cops to be seen. The landscape changes again: no longer desert, but arid plains and barren hills, unlike any European scenery. Ever so slowly, the road rises: we pass 4,000 feet, then 5,000, mile after mile we climb onto a high plateau, studded with small conifers.

We leave I-40 at Williams, Arizona, a small frontier town, with Highway 64 heading directly North: its only destination, the Grand Canyon! Again, more miles of driving in high plateau country. This is the Kaibab National Forest. The few settlements we pass appear to be populated by Indians (Sorry! Not politically correct: they’re called Native Americans and now live in trailer homes, not in teepees). We pass the type of dusty gas stations you see in films: two pumps, signboards flapping in the wind, freezer chests with “ICE!” written on the side. Miles of nothing on both sides, the road points straight towards the only feature in this plain, a red rock butte.

We pass Tusayan, Arizona, and the Canyon is near: there are a few motels, a supermarket, a McDonalds, an airport with signs offering Canyon flights. Five hours and 280 miles from Vegas, we are there: the Grand Canyon National Park entrance. We pay the $ 20 entrance fee, and proceed onwards in a juniper and pinon pine forest. Can this be it? It’s not what I expected. I assumed we would be in some kind of mountain range! We proceed towards a newly built visitor center when a road sign indicates a view point: Mathers Point.
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What I see takes my breath away: a huge gash in the Earth as though some giant had cut a zigzag separating the North Rim from the South Rim. In between, thousands of rock columns, amphitheatres, pyramids, walls, terraces, cliffs, crags and pinnacles, in hundreds of shades of red, yellow, ochre, grey. Far, far below, the blue water of the Colorado River can be seen. The North Rim is far away across from us, more than 16 km away, say the signs. What a sight! This is nature at its most majestic. What a difference from the tacky kitschiness of Vegas!

As we go (on foot) from one viewpoint to another, we begin to appreciate the subtle nuances in the rock layers, more than a dozen from rim to canyon floor – a geologist’s dream! As the afternoon wears on, the light changes, the shadows lenghten, and the whole view changes too. We are now at Hopi Point, and have a fantastic outlook on the sun setting down on the Kaibab plateau and of the reddening rocks of the Canyon walls. Soon, only the highest spires are bathed in the evening light, and as the sun finally sets, the full moon is rising on the opposite side. A chill wind sets in – we are at about 2,500 metres here! But soon the shuttle bus arrives and takes us to our lodge.
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Evening meal at Bright Angel Lodge – a southwest steak fajita with guacamole, refried beans and tortillas and an excellent “Fat Tire” Colorado ale. We retire tired but happy.

Sunday – we take the shuttle bus to the viewpoints we didn’t see yesterday – here I must admire the organisation of the US National Parks – with a regular free shuttle bus service they have eliminated the traffic of the hundreds of private vehicles, whilst providing access for all. The informative panels at each viewpoint and at the park center are exemplary. At every point we admire the Grand Canyon’s unique beauty and changing scenery. But at 11 we have to say goodbye, we must drive back to Vegas to catch the 5pm flight to Denver and thence to Minneapolis. The drive back retraces our previous day’s route, but it is not at all tiring, we just set the cruise control and enjoy the endless vistas.

As I write, I am brought back to earth after the wonderful Grand Canyon experience. Or rather, I am up in the sky – in a cramped centre seat in the DEN-MSP flight with nowt but a packet of peanuts and a coke to eat, and a 23:45 arrival time!

USA 3

My second full day in Vegas today. Much like the first: wake up at 4-5 am due to jet lag, toss and turn around in bed, eventually I get up, check mail, breakfast, then off to the convention centre. I’m visiting a janitorial supply exhibition, much like the one in Amsterdam I saw in May. Only this is bigger. Lots of meetings with customers and potential customers.

The fun part starts after the show: we go off to visit the fantastic hotels – Paris complete with Eiffel tower and bistros, Bellagio with huge lake and fountain display, Caesar’s Palace with Roman Forum, the Venetian complete with St. Mark’s campanile and gondolas, the Mirage with exploding volcano, Treasure Island with pirate battle….Vegas is the true capital of kitsch! And people everywhere late at night – a most uncommon sight in American cities. And of course the sights of the casinos: hundreds of slot machines a-ringing at all hours in a cacophony of sound, the yells celebrating a winner on a roll at the craps tables, the discreet side-rooms where middle-aged Chinese ladies bet thousand-dollar chips at Baccarat.

Nothing to report on the foodie front. The convention centre specialities are warmed-up cheeseburgers with greasy fried onions or hot dogs. Last night we chose badly and went to the buffet at Caesar’s: shrimp salad, spare ribs, assorted sweets. OK, it was just $ 16.99 (“gratuity NOT included”), but we could have had better. Tonight we will patronise the steak restaurant in Bally’s, supposedly one of the best in Vegas.

Our Saturday excursion has been decided: we will go to the Grand Canyon! We’ll have an early start, drive over at European speeds and hope to see something before sundown. Hey, it’s supposed to be one of the wonders of the world, it’s not that far, I’ll give it a go! North Rim is closed, so we’ll go to Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim.