Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Paris You Do Not Want to Visit or… Learn How to Use a GPS

DSC03554 DSC03553

Even though this is a lovely church tower, we have no idea where in Paris it is, nor do we know the name of the church. Why is that? Because we were on the excessively large ring road that encircles Paris like a boa constrictor encircles its prey. This is a cautionary tale about getting lost in a rental car.

We were very pleased with ourselves for renting a car at the Charles De Gaul airport, rather than inside Paris. We were planning on visiting Reims in the Champagne region north east of Paris, then go to several places in Normandy before returning to Paris for our flight home. As we left the airport, we were trying to learn the specifics of the GPS on the dashboard of our rental car, when we discovered we were heading in the wrong direction. Years ago on my first visit, as I walked along the Champs Elise, I saw a small fender bender. Both drivers left their cars, one of his own volition and the other being dragged out by his collar. Needless to say it was an unfriendly confrontation comprised of screaming and fisticuffs. It prompted me to wonder how one says I’m sorry in French. Then and there, the decision was made to simply avoid driving in Paris.

DSC03549 DSC03552

As we kept going further south we headed toward the Paris Centre signs hoping to find a way to turn around. Our map was somewhat helpful but once we discovered the intricacies of the GPS it turned into our best friend. Unfortunately, we still couldn’t find the turnoffs in time to actually take them, so we eventually had to make the complete loop around Paris. Los Angeles freeways had nothing on this tangle of lanes, vehicles, and off ramps, but they did prepare us for it.

DSC03556 DSC03555

The one hour drive wasn’t completely devoid of small pleasures, if you like modern architecture, and we did see an advertising balloon afloat overhead. When you need to keep a lookout for your exit, these distractions could actually cost you another hour if you can’t read 6-15 direction signs in a flash.


We took a deep breath as we entered the GPS directed turnoff, found our way out of Paris, and sighed with relief. This unpleasant detour could have easily been avoided had we stopped to take a few minutes to figure out the GPS instead of rushing out of the airport. Lesson learned. As it turned out, the GPS also saved us from missing our flight home, because we were literally driving blind in the dark, wee hours of the morning when we left. Our eyes and maps were useless with no light.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hotel Belle Etoile in La Roque-Gageac, Where Time Stands Still

Perhaps time does not stand still in this quaint village, however, it does slow down, and it is unbelievable that in the past 8 years, Hotel Belle Etoile had not increased its rates for double rooms with private baths. As I looked back on the menus, even they have not kept up with inflation. The two course meal is now 28 euro, 2 euro above the 2006 price. The 3 and 4 course dinners were similarly increased in price, by a pittance. The value is so phenomenal, last year we booked 5 rooms for our 25th wedding anniversary, then invited family and friends who enjoy traveling to Europe to join us for 4 days and we would pick up the tab. It was far more generous for those who paid airfare to join us, and continue on with their own trips, than it was for us to take them to Belle Etoile.

The lovely, little settee where I sat and wrote my travel notes is now gone from the parlor, and has been replaced by a small table and two chairs. I could say I missed it, but in truth it squeaked and was so unstable that I could just picture myself sprawled across it's broken parts, in the middle of the floor. When it comes to the wall bedecked with stuffed, wild game, my perspective has changed. I used to love peering at the crocodile on top of a wardrobe closet, from the small window in the 2nd floor hallway. This time I contented myself with looking up at it from my chair.

No matter which room you stay in, whether it be the smaller rooms facing toward the garden or the front rooms facing the river, at Belle Etoile you will always get a room with a view. But even better you can also have breakfast or dinner at the hotel since they have a wonderful restaurant on site.

The Restaurant Belle Etoile is divided into 3 spaces. As you walk through the courtyard, up the stairs and through the front door, to your left is the formal, country French dining room. This room is also used for breakfast which the hotel provides for an extra 10 euro per day, per person and it is optional. It’s a charming, comfortable room with a bar that opens in the afternoon. You may have your drink while sitting in this room or you may opt to take it to the informal terrace.

The terrace is perfect for a sunny afternoon and now that the grape arbor is beautifully filled out, it provides a cool, shaded, al fresco, dining experience. It’s tempting to pick a grape during the season, but I’ve managed to resist thus far. During the evenings, I prefer the 2 indoor dining spaces. Just behind the terrace, is the 3rd dining room.

My favorite space is this elegant, formal dining room, still French in feel, but not “country”. It looks onto the small back garden that is seen from the back of the building, as well as toward the terrace. The menu is the same in all three spaces, the dishes served are exceptional, and the only recommendation to be made is that the menu could change with more frequency.  Some of the selections we were offered in 2014 were the same as they were in 2011. Dining there 2 of 4 evenings in the same week was difficult and left several of us choosing the same entree, just because there was only one non meat entree and no nightly special available. The menu has no vegetarian entree, but I’m certain the kitchen would accommodate the special need upon request. I’ll try asking on my next visit.

After the bread and mini baguettes are delivered to the table in a small basket, filled with one of each item per person, you can expect to receive an amuse bouche, compliments of the chef. On the first occasion we were served a wild mushroom, creamed soup, another time we received a creamed winter squash or pumpkin soup. Both were flavorful and seasoned to perfection. I was happy to see the mushroom soup with cepes (porcini mushrooms) and creme fraiche served again.

It’s safe to say that you could easily be offered a prawn appetizer, since we now have photographic evidence of two different preparations. The cold prawns served over eggplant and a ginger tart was the most recent of these appetizers, but as good as it was, the earlier offering of breaded and fried prawns, with potato slices covered in balsamic glazed shallots, was my preferred choice. This year a monkfish carpaccio marinated in lemon juice was on the menu. There was also a red wine poached foie gras, however it would be difficult to improve on the foie gras that came with a drinkable pear compote imbued with walnut and vanilla. After rereading the older menu, I regret not having tried the foie gras with caramelized apples and black pudding. Since the Dordogne is foie gras country, rest assured, you will find it on the menu in several variations.

The small grey snails cooked in a Pot-au-feu broth of mixed herbs, covered in a puff pastry was beautiful to behold and delicious as well. It was more than an appetizer, it was an event. Now for my favorite appetizer, mercifully on the menu every time we have been to Belle Etoile, Cocotte style eggs (coddled) with crayfish and morel mushrooms in a chicory cream sauce. Everyone at our table swooned with their first mouthful.

If you have to choose between a filet topped with potatoes, or a tenderloin topped with foie gras, could you make a wrong decision? I know the meat looks like a tenderloin, but I even checked my travel notes and the foie gras definitely came with the duck.

Okay, you prefer lighter proteins like fish or chicken; you still can’t go wrong at Restaurant La Belle Etoile. Perfectly cooked sea bass was on the menu with mussels, a lemon fennel sauce, and the most interesting vegetable presentation. Buttered, shredded carrots were baked inside crispy phyllo dough. The free range chicken had black truffles layered under the skin before roasting and was served with a truffle risotto. I like the way the wing drumette was included with a grated cheese tuile.

One year we were given the choice of duck fillet, which was a sliced duck breast. It was served with a gratin of pasta using Cantal cheese, another wonderful French cow’s milk cheese. The presentation of ziti with the cheese was beautiful as well as almost architectural and one day I may use that idea for presentation at home. Lamb is another meat that is well prepared at this restaurant and with very generous portions. The hazelnut crust was memorable, but I’m not sure of the vegetable at this late date. It may have been parsnip with a cream sauce.

Ordering cognac is a nice start for dessert. To finish, the restaurant served complimentary cannelles and pate de fruit. Better yet are the desserts themselves, some being unique and others very classic. The mixed berries with red currant sorbet and a meringue were very refreshing on a warm evening.

Rhum Baba is one of the classic French desserts and this one was served with house made vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. The rum was poured over it at the table; a nice little touch. Creme Brulee is another classic, however, this version seems denser than most and even richer tasting. The dessert that seems proprietary for Belle Etoile is the strawberry dish covered in a sweet pistachio foam and covered by a pistachio tuile.

Two desserts that were new to us were the fried chocolate doughnuts served with vanilla ice cream and pineapple tidbits and the classic profiteroles with a new twist. Instead of vanilla ice cream, the profiteroles were served with chestnut ice cream, and whipped cream, along with the expected chocolate sauce. For those who do not like sweets, cheese is always available. This was similar to a Brie de Meaux with black truffles added by the chef.

How did I manage to forget the wine? La Belle Etoile has an excellent, yet  non cumbersome, wine list that includes French wines that enhance your dining experience; picked expressly for the food they serve. Their cuisine reflects the very best of what the Perigord region has to offer the world.

La Belle Etoile Website

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mercat Santa Caterina in Barcelona


The name of the photographer, who shot the poster photo directly above, is unknown so I cannot give credit nor thanks. Still, I think the roof needs to be shown, since it is the nicest feature of the mercato. I kept reading on the Internet how expensive La Boqueria was, so before I went back there, I decided to locate the other famous mercato in Barrio Gotic, named Santa Caterina. After being quoted a price per pound for porcini mushrooms that was double what was clearly written on the neighboring stall, it occurred to me that this market was not necessarily tourist friendly. With this experience clearly in mind, special attention was paid to stalls that had marked prices and I all but ignored those that didn’t.

DSC00559 DSC00582DSC00584DSC00583DSC00585 DSC00586DSC00587DSC00588DSC00589DSC00591DSC00592DSC00590DSC00593DSC00576     

I don’t  recall ever seeing produce being sold from a refrigerated case before, but this produce was lovingly groomed and attended by greengrocers who appreciated the quality of what they were selling and wanted their patrons to know how special it was. They were making a good case for the reason they were not offering bargain prices. There were more exotic fruits than I had expected, including the shocking pink dragon fruit with the round, black seeds. The mushrooms were virtually unknown to me except for the porcini. Even though I had a kitchen at my disposal, I didn’t buy any, and in retrospect, regret the failed opportunity, especially since I had rented an apartment expressly for the purpose of cooking local ingredients that I may never have tasted before.


The market was large, clean and had a great diversity of goods that it was selling. It would be difficult to not find what you were looking for amongst all the stalls and shops. In the photos above you can see wine, deli items, prepared foods to go, saffron, nuts and dried fruits, fresh spices and seeds. There was a good selection of olive oils and paprika made by many different companies. Marcona almonds, a Spanish delicacy, were in short supply and that surprised me although with a price over 23 euros for a kilo, how many vendors would want to invest in them?

DSC00573DSC00570DSC00571DSC00574DSC00572DSC00569   DSC00575DSC00562 

Bacalla was king, but shellfish and other fish still had a presence here. Spanish cheese seemed well represented as did the olives with so many to choose from. The meat looked rich and red, but I don’t know if it was aged. Beef in Europe never seems as good as what we find here at home with the exception of Chianina beef from Tuscany in Italy.   


Along the front side of the market building were many small restaurants and cafes. Vendors were going in for a quick snack or coffee and it appeared that many people knew one another. As tourists, we were really fish out of water here, but the service was pleasant and we felt comfortable. After seeing the dragon fruit, and all the fruit drinks for sale at the market I decided to try strawberry mixed with coconut milk. Just as we were leaving, it started raining so we took cover and had a tea and a latte. The coffee was robust.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

OliSoliva, a Must See Gourmet Shop in Barcelona

While wandering the stalls at Mercat Santa Caterina in Barcelona, a glass enclosed, stand alone shop caught my eye. The windows were filled with extra virgin olive oils from all over Spain and perhaps elsewhere. As I walked into the shop, it was apparent that even though it specialized in olive oils, it also had other gourmet items in stock.

Extra virgin olive oil, if you don’t already know, is cold pressed and has not lost any nutritional value that occurs when processing with heat. It comes from the first press of the olives and has less than .8% acidity. The next press of virgin olive oil has a higher acidity of up to 1.5% but has not been adulterated with solvent processing. Further refining can lower the acidity but also limit the natural color and flavor. Oils that have been labeled as pure olive oil or olive oil are made from refined virgin olive oil, and have been filtered through charcoal or by chemical or mechanical means. The acidity may be lower, but they do not have a strong olive taste.

Acidity levels are crucial for taste. Olive oils made with 1% acidity or higher have a decidedly bitter taste. You can do a comparison with Turkish and Greek extra virgin olive oils which are generally 1% or higher, and with an Italian extra virgin, that is traditionally lower in acidity. Since some labels do not list acidity level, you can’t go wrong with an extra virgin. Even though Spain produces much of the world’s olive oil, over 40%, it may also import olives from other countries, so check the label to make sure the olives are Spanish in origin, which will insure that it is made from Spanish varietals. The use of 100% olives of a particular variety makes a very distinctive oil.
The range of extra virgin olive oils offered by this shop is extensive, and their oils are, indeed, predominantly Spanish. The varietals like Arbequina, Hojiblanca and Picual are often used exclusively for one oil and those oils are labeled as 100%, as you can see on the L’Estornell bottle in the photo above. Although I have purchased each of these varietal oils, I cannot truly distinguish between them, since the bottles were opened one at a time. On my next trip to Spain, I hope to buy more and do an actual taste test. Here are some links concerning the 3 brands pictured above. I found them very interesting: Les Cabanes  L'Estornell  Oli de Pao

Flavored olive oils were present, but I must say, I wish we would start seeing more variety of flavors. You can find many citrus flavored oils, red pepper flavored, garlic flavored, basil flavored and Truffle flavored olive oils, but other herb flavored olive oils are few and far between. The French do make thyme, sage, and rosemary flavored oils as well as lavender flavored olive oil. My favorite American brand is Sciabica. They make the most incredible jalapeno flavored oil that is not as hot as most people expect, but intensifies the flavor of every green vegetable I have tried it on, and works beautifully in everything you want to brighten in flavor. I love frying eggs in it. They also make a lavender that I use in my original recipe for Lavender Shortbread, and a habanero that would knock your socks off if you used more than a drop. In the Dordogne area of southern France I found porcini, chanterelle, and morel flavored oils, produced by a farmer, but he was not at the same market in Sarlat when I returned a few years later. Those were incredible and I fear they are gone forever.

Sea salt from the Spanish island of Ibiza caught my eye, since I collect salts while on vacation. I bought a small carton, but now regret that I passed on the beautiful ceramic jar seen in this photo. I also purchased a bag of salt, as a gift for a dear friend who loved to cook but could no longer travel.

Himalayan salt is becoming more common, but I admit to never having seen the other two shown in this photo. I did however suspect that the Viking salt may have been smoked, judging by its unusual color. Here is a link to the company: Terre Exotique . They say the recipe was actually handed down from Viking times. The website of this French purveyor of fine foods is one I will study before traveling abroad, because it lists stores that sell their products. One in Paris is already on my list of stores to visit.

If you’re going to sell salt, why not salted anchovies? Both of these containers were beautiful, and I prefer salted anchovies, but my suitcase space was limited as it was, and I found these during the 1st week of a month long trip.  At least I know where to find them again.

Caviaroli is the name of my favorite product sold at OliSoliva. They are small gelatin pearls filled with flavored  oils and I think they would make a fine addition to an appetizer or two. The bright yellow Caviaroli encapsulates hazelnut oil. Other flavors offered were rosemary olive oil, basil olive oil and piment de esplette olive oil. These seem to be standardized flavors delivered in a most modern and sophisticated manner. Imagine the burst of flavor as you bite into one. Here is a link with more information about this product produced in Barcelona. Caviaroli

Avenida Francesc Cambó, 153 -154-155 ( Mercado De Santa Catalina )
08003 Barcelona, Spain
Phone:+34 932 68 14 72