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!

Amsterdam 1 – pre-dawn

VERY early start today: alarm goes off at 3:45 so that I can catch a 6:20 flight to Amsterdam. Blech! Apart from the odd lorry, no one ventures on the roads at this hour. I make my way in the growing light of dawn, there is more activity around VCE, and the airport is actually busy with assorted biz people and long-distance holidaymakers mostly travelling to the US. At this time there is not even a coffee shop open for a cappuccino, and so at least stave off sleep, not to mention the hunger pangs!

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!

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.