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!

Athens 3

I wake to a grey winter day. There’s a stiff wind outside and the hills surrounding Athens are blanketed by snow. Morning visit to the offices of my Man in Greece. No chance for any sightseeing, he’s in a grim industrial area outside the city centre. Well, as grim as most industrial areas, but I notice the streets and pavements are potholed and in need of repair. The traffic is terrible: total stoppages are said to be frequent due to heavy pollution.

Usual discussions presenting our new products, market situation, activities of the competition. I study more etymology: “competition” in Greek is “antagonismos”! We then go out to do some market research in a couple of supermarkets – an opportunity for me to grab a 1 kg pot of delicious Greek yoghurt and a bottle of Metaxa 5*. Soon enough it’s time to head for the airport. We enter the brand new Athens ring road, financed by EU cohesion funds (the Greeks are desperate to spend as much EU dosh as possible before the East Europeans get in). In just twenty minutes or so I get to the “aerodromos” with plenty of time to spare for the flight back to Rome. I while away the time catching up with email and news in the AZ lounge.

More airport waiting in FCO, I finally board the chock-full Venice flight, an hour’s drive home and I arrive at last at 22:15.

Athens 2 – evening

Uneventful flight from Rome to Athens; there is plenty of free space, as the departure was delayed they serve us lunch at 14:30, and I hungrily wolf down my ration of penne al sugo di olive and roulé of salmon. As we prepare to land, I observe the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean as we approach the mainland……..hang on…….on closer inspection, the waters are steely grey, a fierce wind is whipping up the waves and the clouds are covering the barren hills…. this is winter!! Temperature around 5C, and the locals are evidently not used to this!

Surprise as I emerge from the aircraft – this is not the old Ellinikon airport I knew, but a completely new airport with acres of marble and granite, called Eleftherios Venizelos. Efficient and quick, particularly as I only have my carry-on trolley. My Man in Greece has an appointment this afternoon, so I have to make my own way downtown. It turns out there is a direct bus to the central Syntagma Square. The airport is out in the countryside and it takes well over an hour in heavy traffic. I amuse myself reading the Greek signs (I can only read the capital letters!!) and thereby getting an etymology lesson:

bibliotheka – bookshop
typosgrapheios – printer
sigara – tobacconist
exodos – exit

At Syntagma Square I take the metro to the hotel – another surprise – only two or three years old – more acres of marble and granite – not a single graffiti in sight! The Greeks are certainly benefiting from EU dosh and, naturally, a grand plan for the 2004 Olympics.

I meet my Man in Greece for dinner. He is a friendly guy of my same age; appropriately named Achilles. I have met him a few times before, but only briefly; I am glad to be able to get to know him a little better. He takes me to a rather posh restaurant called Dionysos just at the foot of the Acropolis – you certainly can’t fault the setting: vast plate glass windows with a view of the floodlit Parthenon and the theatre of Herodes Attikus just beneath. Magnificent!

We dine amongst the great and the good, and the food is excellent too: assorted _meze_ (dolmas, moussaka, spanakopitta, kalamares and others), a grilled sea-bass with courgettes and greek salad. Maybe a little over-enthusiastic in the olive oil, but this habit is typically Greek. A good bottle of Santorini white wine and a Metaxa brandy to finish. The conversation ranges widely from talking shop to bambini to stock market woes to Iraq. A very pleasant evening!

Yassou!

Athens 1

This week’s trip is a short hop to Greece. Fly in today, fly back tomorrow. A visit to our local distributor, who is a good one, but given the size of the country, does not do an enormous amount of business. But I’ve promised him long ago that I’d visit him, so here’s the opportunity.

I’m looking forward to the trip: I was last in Greece twenty years ago in 1983, as a fresh-faced neo-graduate exploring the roots of European culture and Byzantine architecture. Of course sun, sand and s*x had no attraction for me… Anyway, I wonder how the place has changed.

My itinerary today takes me VCE-FCO-ATH, with AZ. I arrive punctually in Venice, only to discover that the Alitalia flight is delayed and I risk making the connection in Rome. The check-in lady efficiently reschedules me on an AirOne flight. I go to gate, only to find THIS flight is delayed too! Aargh! I’ll have to sprint for it in Rome!

Côte d’Azur 2

Early morning start today: I have an 8 am meeting with my first customer. The valet collects my car from the garage, then I drive up the Grande Corniche on the way towards Monaco. This particular customer is in a splendid location: from his plate glass meeting room windows, the view stretches from the seaside to the glinting snowy peaks of the Alpes Maritimes. Aren’t meetings better with this kind of scenery rather than with a view of a car park?

In contrast, I spend the rest of the day in the large industrial area north of Nice. Decidedly more down-to-earth, but also very convenient, as I can see four customers one after the other. Exit one customer, drive a couple of hundred metres along the road, enter another customer.

More visits in the afternoon, then back to the hotel. After checking in back home and a shower, it’s time for dinner! My chosen spot for the evening is l’Effeuillant at 26 Boulevard Victor Hugo, tel 04 93 82 48 63, in the modern city centre, specialised in Provencal cuisine. As I enter, I feel somewhat out of place: it is maybe more suitable for a romantic evening out rather than a single business traveller, but the waiter soon puts me at ease. I decide on the menu fixe. Firstly an amuse-gueule is served: a small toast with smoked salmon, plenty of olive oil, a few sprigs of fennel.

With the entrée, it is obvious that the chef has an artistic bent. I order a Terrine de fois gras de canard au Muscat de Frontignan, pain brioché. Instead of the usual limp lettuce leaf to garnish the slab of fois gras, I have an exquisitely decorated flower made of sprigs of chive with a tiny quartered tomato and a few drops of balsamic vinegar to serve as branches. The foie gras is sprinkled with a few grains of sel gros. It is so beautiful that I am reluctant to eat!! As we say in Italian, “anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte”!

The foie gras is excellent as well as beautiful, and is soon followed by the second course: Carré d’agneau tout simplement rôti, avec son jus d’ail, a succulent roast rack of lamb, with a very garlicky sauce and roast potatoes. I love lamb, but it’s hard to get in our part of Italy out of season, so I am glad to enjoy it.

The waiter arrives with a rumbling cart: the cheese course! I am presented with a wide selection, and choose the St. Maur, St. Marcellin, Livarot and a tiny piece of chèvre whose name I forget.

Dessert is a soufflé glacé à l’orange which is a rather posh name for a cylinder of orange ice-cream, but here again the chef has excelled in the decoration: with tiny pieces of exotic fruit, candied orange peel and a sprinkling of icing sugar, he has created another work of art!

A half bottle of Côtes de Provence red went down very well.

Now I ask you, can you show me where I can eat a comparable meal in England for EUR 31, let’s call it twenty quid?

From the restaurant it’s not far to the Negresco and the sea front Promenade des Anglais, and I walk briskly in the cool night back to the hotel.

Côte d’Azur 1

This week I’m on a three-day trip to visit my customers and contacts on the Cote d’Azur. Not a trip I do every year, but it’s always “un vrai plaisir“. The locals are friendly, the climate is agreeable, the customers are generally “sympa“.

The drive to Nice is around 550 km. I leave at 8:30 and at a steady pace arrive at 15:00, with a short lunch stop before Genova. Weather good, temperature about 12C, not exactly balmy, but certainly warmer than back home. On the way to France I pass the dozens of greenhouses on the coast of Liguria, housing the famed Sanremo flowers. Mimosas in full bloom bedeck the hillsides.

Quick meeting with a small customer in the industrial area outside Nice, longer meeting at the airport with a potential agent for Poland, but who lives in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Claims to be able to sell millions but requires rock-bottom prices. Hrrumph! Then I drive along the Promenade des Anglais to my hotel, near the old town. It is dark, but the immense crescent of the Baie des Anges is impressive as ever: lined with fine hotels, the Negresco in primis, the West End, the La Pérouse just at the end beside the castle, where many, many years ago I spent my wedding night!

Tonight’s dining choice is an old-time favourite of mine, Flo in rue Sacha-Guitry 2, just round the corner from the hotel. It is a 1920s theatre that has been converted in a restaurant, whilst still maintaining it’s original structure. The foyer has become the bench for the huitrier, on the stage, beyond a huge red curtain and a plate glass window, is the kitchen with the bustling chefs and the diners are seated at tables where the audience would normally be.

I decide to eat fish: as a starter Tartare de saumon mi-fumé, jeunes pousses, parfum exotique. As expected, the classic minced salmon with a baby spinach leaf salad, but hey, what’s this?? A mango sauce! Strangely enough, the smoky, salty salmon is well matched to the sweet mango! What a surprise!

As main course I chose a Nage crémeuse de joues de lotte, ravioles au basilic. I am presented with a mysterious black cast-iron cocotte, the waiter opens it with a flourish, and proceeds to ladle out the contents. I have a delicious creamy monkfish stew, with tiny basil-filled ravioli, with morel mushrooms, a sprig of rosemary and a dried tomato. Incredibly tasty – only the French could make a dish of such perfection!

As a wine I choose a dry Muscadet sur Lie, 2001, but a red would have gone down equally well with the monkfish.

Dessert: being a chocaholic, I am sorely tempted by the Croustillant de Chocolat amer, crème anglaise à la vanille, but after much indecision I decide on the Croustade de Pommes gasconne au jus du vieil Armagnac. A worthy choice: I get a crunchy puff pastry castle with a puréed apple filling, the alcoholic aroma of Armagnac wafting all over. An excellent meal!

To aid digestion, a brisk walk up to the seaside, I watch for a few moments the bright lights of the planes landing at the airport on the other side of the bay, then on to bed.

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).
Tagliatelle con zucchine e gamberetti.jpg

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).

Zabaglione.jpg

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.
Ravioli della Taverna.jpg

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.

Pastissada de caval.jpg

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!