Paris – Astier

Not a good day today. Plan: fly to Paris via Zurich, arrive around lunchtime, and visit an exhibition in the afternoon. Reality: I arrive in Venice airport to find it wreathed in a thick spring fog, incoming plane is delayed, I miss the connecting flight in Zurich, and have to wait two hours for the next one. Result: a day wasted hanging around in airports and I only arrive in Paris at 6 pm!

But Paris has a special je ne sais quoi that revives the jaded business traveller. Maybe the warm evening sunlight shining on the boulevards? Or the colourful array of all kinds of little shops, offering clothing for grosses tailles, upscale bathroom fixtures or boulangeries that might have been there a few generations? My spirits lift and soon it’s time for dinner!

I decide to explore the surroundings of my hotel in the Place de la République. Not far away is Astier, a small bistro with closely spaced tables, wood panelling and napkins the same size as the tablecloths!

The menu is a selection of bistro standards, with some nice alternatives in the fish department. But I’m in the mood for meat, so as a starter I order an excellent foie gras de canard with a glass of sweet Jurançon wine. This is quickly followed by the main course of lapin à  la sauce moutarde, tender rabbit legs with a delicate mustard sauce.

Next comes a highlight in Astier: a truly huge plateau de fromages with over two dozen cheeses, brought to the table on a wire trestle, similar to the seafood plate in other restaurants. A real temptation, and for a cheese lover as me, it’s not easy to resist trying a little bit of this, then a litle bit of that… weight watchers be warned! After this feast, no room for dessert! Oh, alright, I confess to having a refreshing sorbet de mangue to clear my palate!

From the impressive wine list, I chose a very decent Loire Valley red, Saumur Champigny Chateau de Hureau 2002.

Excellent value, with the menu fixe at Euro 27 + wine.

Astier, 44 rue J. Pierre Timbaud, Paris 11e.

nice in Nice

‘evening all! I am writing to you from the Côte d’Azur, where I am travelling this week. More precisely from the Sundeck restaurant on the roof of the Sofitel hotel in Nice. It’s a balmy evening, perfect for eating al fresco by the swimming pool, enjoying the view of the city roofs and cypress-covered hillsides with the red sky slowly turning to dark blue then deep black.

I spent the day with our big customer in Nice, who is reviewing their range of packaging. This being a pharmaceutical company, it is a long-term review as they need to apply for Health Ministry approval for every minor change in their products. Speak late 2005 before we see any results. My interlocutor is friendly, he likes our products and he will push for R&D and Marketing approval – this is the sort of meeting I need!

Back to the Sofitel and the Sundeck. Now I wouldn’t normally stay in this expensive ***** hotel, but it’s the off season, there are no fairs in the nearby exhibition centre, and they are running a special Internet offer, so pourquoi pas? We all like nice rooms and attentive service, non? The only drawback is that it is too far to walk to the old town and the Promenade des Anglais, but no matter, I am tired, so happy enough at the Sundeck!

I opt for the menu fixe at 24 Euro:

Amuse bouche of pureed aubergines, served chilled in a small glass.

Salmon marinated with lime juice, olive oil and coarse salt.

Grilled swordfish steak à la provencale, with olive oil, tomatoes and onions.

Soufflé glacé au Grand Marnier, a delightful cylinder of orange ice cream, garnished with strawberries and kumquats.

Half of AOC Cassis, Clos Val Bruyère Côtes de Provence and a bottle of Badoit.

café et friandises

nice in Nice, n’est-ce pas?

Smart Paris

Day out around Paris today. I’m taking advantage of a special lo-cost flight offer to fly in, meet a few new contacts and quickly out again. Flew with Volare Airlines yesterday evening, IMHO the most comfortable lo-cost airline, with a good seat-legroom. (What’s the technical term for this? The L-dimension??)

Arrival at Paris-Orly. Decidedly not as modern as Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Long, loooong walkways to Terminal Sud, where a plaque proudly commemorates the opening by CDG himself in 1961.

I need a car. Before the flight, I checked out the offerings from Hertz, Avis, et. al. – what’s this?? EUR 120 to hire a Clio?? No way! A quick web search reveals that Sixt are offering a Smart Car “from EUR 5 a day”. With add-ons, it actually works out at EUR 33, but still a great offer! On arrival at Orly, I find that I’m assigned a SmartForTwo Cabrio. Even better – the weather is warm, the sun is shining and the idea of driving in view of the Tour Eiffel with the roof down and shades on is appealing!

I digress on this Smart – it’s the first car I’ve hired where I’ve had to consult the handbook before driving away! The ignition key hole is down by the gearstick, and has some kind of safety device built in so the engine will not start until you turn key to position 1, press a button, turn off again, and then turn key to on. Crazy! The gearbox itself is semi-automatic – no clutch, but you have to push the gearstick up and down to change gears, as directed by the “multifunction display” on the dashboard. Unless, of course the overrevving mechanism kicks in, which changes the gears automatically anyway. Takes some getting used to. The interior is roomy and comfortable (for two, of course!) and on the whole, I find the car good enough in city traffic, but it reminds me yet again why I hate automatic gearboxes: there is a stomach-lurching pause whilst the gears shift up and down. And I do wonder: where did they put the engine??

I regret there is nothing to report on the gastronomic front: time did not allow! A stop at midday at the Auchan Flunch for a salade verte with a Chaource and Buche de Chèvre cheese, and dinner at the gate area of Orly Airport: a bière pression with a sandwich jambon et crudités!!

Le picnic, c’est chic!

It must be the heat of this torrid summer: the French have discovered the pleasures of the anglo-saxon picnic! Mind you, they don’t pack mere egg-and-cress sarnies in the hamper, but the distinctly more foodie sandwich pain aux raisins, chèvre frais, copeaux de fenouil et pulpe d’olive, complete with a bottle of vintage Champagne…

Read more in this article in The Economist!

Bretagne > Alsace

Somehow I fell in a communications black hole yesterday, so no update was posted. But having set off yesterday morning from Rennes, after much, much driving, I’m now back in Alsace. Several meetings a day and travelling do not allow any time for sightseeing, but I ended up yesterday night in Blois, in the midst of the Loire valley. Tourist country, of course, and my hotel had a coachload of American pensioners on tour. The château at Blois was the royal residence for many years, but its outward appearance is less impressive than nearby Chambord or Chenonceaux. The inside decoration is supposedly a masterpiece of the Renaissance, but naturally it was closed at time I arrived.

ch�teau de Blois

Today I spent a lot of time driving on the D-roads. As you know, all main motorways lead to Paris and there are few roads going across France. But it turns out to be no problem. I am driving in the heartland of France, in the Saulois, the Cher and the Yonne. The straight, empty roads take me through woodland with many ponds and little villages (the men here still wear flat caps and rotund women emerge from the boulangeries with baguettes in hand). In one of these villages I see a sign for Fromage de Ch̬vre fermier РI cannot resist and buy a couple of Crottin de Chavignol to take home.

Fromagerie

I finally join the A6 motorway, and skirting past Dijon, head for a meeting in the Franche Comté and then onto my overnight stop in Mulhouse.

Mulhouse

Mulhouse is of course a German town that has been only been French (on and off) for about 200 years or so. As in much of Alsace, the architecture is Germanic, with a cathedral similar to Freiburg’s. The locals speak a curious Franco-German dialect. The old town is pretty enough, but is sadly ringed by many ugly 1960s and 1970s concrete buildings.

Aux Caves du Vieux Couvent

For dinner tonight I select Aux Caves du Vieux Couvent in 23 rue Couvent. This is the place to go for Alsace specialities. The atmosphere is rustic, wooden beams, red checked tablecloths, tall green wine glasses and frescoes on the walls. I choose the menu terroir where every dish is accompanied by its own little glass of Alsace wine:

First off with Presskopf à la Vinaigrette, which as the name suggests, is a slice of pressed meat (don’t ask….) with vinaigrette dressing, served with a gherkin and capers. Not exactly to my taste, but one has to sacrifice oneself in the sake of culture, no? A glass of Syvaner starts the series of wines.

Next, a slice of Tarte à l’Oignon, oniony of course, but very delicately so, with a nice crunchy base. Glass of Tokay Pinot Gris – much nicer than the Italian Pinot Grigio that I find invariably acidic!

The main course is Choucroute fine au Riesling, featuring caraway seed sausage, Frankfurter, Speck and a pork chop over a small hill of sauerkraut, with a couple of boiled potatoes. Did I tell you Alsace food isn’t exactly light? Ideal of course for a cold winter’s day, but it’s midsummer now!! A good glass of Riesling helps to wash it all down.

More arrives: Munster cheese with acacia honey – beware, one of the “stinkiest” cheeses in France when ripe, but this one is nice and sweet. Why the honey? I don’t know the origins, but it combines wonderfully with the cheese! And the glass of Gewürztraminer that accompanies it is delectable!

What better to conclude the meal with a refreshing fruit sorbet? Naturally enriched by a squirt of Marc de Gewürztraminer!

Excellent value at EUR 25!

Another recommendation in Mulhouse is Au Bouton d’Or in the Place de la Réunion (Rothüssplatz) – a fromagerie with a vast selection of cheeses, where I will shop tomorrow morning before heading home.

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!

Paris 3 – La Coupole

Spent whole day walking the show. Quite a few customers here and also customers of our distributors, so much talking shop and promises of eternal collaboration (i.e. we’ll send you an order soon…). I had to stop at the stand of our gastronome Belgian and refresh myself every now and then with a cool glass of Corsendonk beer.

Coupole.jpgDinner tonight with my largest German customer, who is also exhibiting at the show. I select a Paris institution: La Coupole in Boulevard Montparnasse, a brasserie founded in 1925 and still going strong. It’s a large place, with about 300 couverts. Good, solid, traditional brasserie menu: I choose the foie gras with the obligatory sweet white wine (a Gewürztraminer Spätlese from Alsace), followed by an extremely tender Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce – a far cry from the tough shoe I had yesterday! Ile flottante as a dessert – that is, “floating islands” of hard beaten egg whites on a lake of sauce anglaise (=custard). Yum!

My guests were suitably impressed by the food and the lively atmosphere (not many restaurants are packed full in Ludwigshafen on a Wednesday night…), and seemed to enjoy their soupe au poisson and grilled sole meunière. They even more enjoyed the bottle of Sancerre we drank. On my next trip to Germany, they promised to invite me to their favourite Gasthof that apparently does an excellent Saumagen. I’m not sure if this is a treat or a threat….

Back to the hotel at 11 pm, where I spent a good half hour talking with a garrulous Tunisian receptionist and his Japanese girlfriend. A weird conversation – he started off trying to flog me an Ecuadorian Panama hat, then moved on to world politics, throwing in references to European integration, the thinking of Sartre and Nietzsche, Chinese population trends, and the role of black Africa in Arab thinking. We concluded agreeing that de Gaulle was right in keeping the Brits out of Europe in 1967 and that Berlusconi is a shite. I assure you that we were all quite sober!

Paris 2

After the morning’s airport excitement, I finally get to board the 11:30 Air France flight to Paris. Compares very badly with Ryanair. Although there *is* some kind of service, it consists of an orange juice and a bag of peanuts, at almost eight times the cost of the flight last week to Stansted! Lo-cost competition has not arrived on the Paris route…

Arrival at CDG, then smooth transfer to the RER train towards Paris. The cleaning exhibition I am visiting is away on the other side of town at Porte de Versailles, and with two metro changes it takes me a good hour to get there. A little larger than the UK exhibition, and full of my products, with most stands displaying a few sprayers. Our gastronome Belgian distributor (who handles this sector) is doing his job well!

On to the hotel before dinner. I am staying near Montparnasse, an area of Paris I am relatively unfamiliar with, but close to the exhibition halls. The hotel room is a tiny box with barely enough room for the bed – not a good choice! Never mind, I won’t be staying much in there! Check out the TV news, praise Chirac for standing up to Anglo-American neo-imperialism. Have you read the report that the Bush admin has already divvied up the post-war Iraq reconstruction spoils? Of course Cheney’s Halliburton is getting the job of rebuilding the oil fields after the cruise missiles have finished destroying them. British companies are squealing as they haven’t had their “fair share” of the loot. Disgusting.

Anyway, back to the nitty-gritty. I walk along the lively Boulevard Montparnasse, full of theatres, cinemas and many restaurants. Spring is almost here, and the dehors of the cafés are full of people watching the world go by. My chosen restaurant tonight is Rotonde, Blvd. Montparnasse 105, at the corner of Blvd. Raspail. I regret to report it was not a good choice. As starter, I chose a charlotte de saumon something-or-other that turned out to be a baked potato with cheese filling on a bed of smoked salmon. Not a good combination. As seconds, I select the entrecote au beurre à la fleur de sel that promised to be a juicy steak, but turned out as a rather chewy, fatty, hunk of meat. I was not impressed by the accompanying gratin dauphinois either. No garlic to be tasted when the thing should have been reeking with it! I console myself with the light and crispy Millefeuilles à la vanille bourbon, and the half bottle of Lussac St. Emilion. There are better places to eat in Paris.

Paris 1 – missed flight….

I am currently sitting at VCE, and am mightily pissed off: I arrived at check in for a flight to Paris at the usual 40 mins before the flight was due, only to be told that “due to security” the regs have changed and all flights close 45 minutes before departure!! Result: I have to be rebooked to a later flight, an have to pay a penalty fare to boot! Luckily I get to Paris only an hour later than expected, but it’s not a good start!