Nougat Non-Non

I should have bought the salted caramels.  Then I would have some to share because they would not have ended up in the trash can at Paris Charles DeGaulle airport security.

We were vacationing in Port en Bessin, Normandy. After enjoying coffee and pastries in the brisk morning sun at Café du Port, we explored the weekly open-air market.

Oh la la! Cute little quail eggs! And next to them, live quail in a cage.

“Do they have names?” we asked.

“We have 600 birds, madame.  Non, we do not name them.”

Ok, moving on to the dairy vendor.  French cheeses galore.  And fresh yogurt.  In cute little glass jars! We bought…as much for the jars as for the yogurt.  (And oh, such yogurt!) On to tastings of charcuterie, where hubby John had to show the vendor photos of his charcuterie. We meandered past chickens roasting on spits and wide pans of simmering paella towards a tasting of Normandy’s famous distilled apple apératifs– calvados, pommeau and eau de vie.

CIMG9176

The calvados (apple brandy), pommeau (calvados/cidre blend), and cute little yogurt jars made it home safely!

Directly across from the calvados tasting was the nougat vendor.  He, too, was giving samples– from wheels of nougat the diameter of car tires. It was impressive.  It was really tasty. It paired surprisingly well with the calvados we had just been tasting at 10 a.m. Yeah, I’m thinking my reserves were down a wee bit.

I decided to buy some.

“How much do you want?” he asked.

I had no idea.  He was selling in metric measurement.  I’m American.  I can handle the French language, but numbers are completely beyond me.  I fumble through rough pathetic calculations.  A kilo is 2.2 pounds.  Une livre is half a kilo.  How much nougat is in a kilo?  Chocolate I can guestimate.  Salt water taffy I have a handle on.  But nougat?

I ask for une livre. He whacks off a big honkin’ piece. But I want it in two flavors. He whacks off another big honkin’ piece.  He is only half listening because this whole time he is luring in customers with free samples.  He wraps the two bricks of nougat (which now I really don’t want) but he’s busy and he’s wielding a huge knife with the skill of a guillotine.

“Ca fait 37 euros, madame.”

Thirty seven euros?  For nougat?

He did say it keeps for a whole year in the pantry. “Not in the refrigerator, madame. That will ruin it.” Ok, ok, we will enjoy it this week and take the rest home to give to family.

The week goes by with barely a nibble of nougat.  I keep forgetting it is there.

Fast forward to the airport and the now-expected body pat-down, this time by a woman who also has had both hips replaced.  She knew exactly where my body was going to ding. We laugh. One can bond with people in the most unexpected circumstances.

My carry-on bag rolls through the scanner and the guard pulls it off.

He needs to check the bag.  I can’t imagine what could be a problem in my carry-on bag.  It’s not like that time I forgot I bought a letter opener in Florence for my son-in-law.

“Madame, will you please take the knife out of your bag?”

“Knife? What knife?”

Security guard turns the x-ray screen around to reveal the shadow of a very lethal looking Renaissance dagger.

“Oh, that knife!”

Yeah, that time all Mario got was a story.  This time the guard pulls everything out of my bag…books and scarves, cahiers for my French 4 class, souvenir magnets for the fridge.  Finally, at the bottom of the bag, he finds two bricks of nougat.

They look like a kilo of plastic explosives.

He unwraps the nougat.  He sees that it is nougat, although an unusually large amount of nougat.  He smiles at me and says, “Madame, you can bring hard nougat in your carry-on.  But next time, pack the soft nougat in your checked luggage.  I’ll ask if you can keep it.”

Off he goes to ask a higher authority.  Back he comes, shaking his head.

“But you can stand here and eat it, if you want.”

So now I am tearing wads of nougat for our group of six.  I am offering nougat to total strangers, who look at me like I am a crazy person.

The bulk of the nougat ends up in the trash.  We continue toward our gate with nougat-sticky fingers.

We pass a kiosk for Ladurée, the famous Paris patisserie.  As a consolation prize, I decide to buy a box of their renowned macarons.  And there at the register, what do I see?  A beautifully wrapped single serving bar of…nougat.

Yup. I bought it. But I am not sharing. It cost me dearly.

CIMG9175

My consolation prize for the contraband nougat.

Chillin’ out in Boulder, Colorado

Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado

The first week of summer vacation finds me in Boulder, Colorado where hubby John is taking a class for IBM.  Boulder, with its reputation as “the happiest town in America” is a shock to my system.  Boulderites merrily bike along paths that are an integral part of the city layout.  They bike as transportation as well as exercise.  They not only bike into the mountains, they bike to class, they bike to work.  Their bikes have baskets on them.   Women in dresses on bikes with baskets remind me of pictures of World War II women in France.  The French biked because there was no gas.  Bouderites bike to save the environment.  And they look happy.   I, on the other hand, arrive with an East Coast scowl on my face.   An East Coast-just finished the school year-beaten down like a work mule-weary of traffic scowl.

Boulder Creek bike trail

This is Boulder Creek where it flows behind Boulder High School. Click on the picture for evidence of teenage creativity. I can’t help wondering if the creators were skipping class as well as stones.

I feel the scowl every time I am surprised at the smiley-friendliness of the hotel staff and wait staff in restaurants and the equally relaxed attitude of the customers.  I make a mental note: Smile.  You are not dealing with road rage or teenagers in the classroom.  I am reminded not to scowl when I see my reflection in the fully-mirrored elevator.  That is not easy because I am seeing my relection in a fully-mirrored elevator.  From every angle.  I do  not at all look like a woman who rides a bike to work in a dress.   I look like a woman who drives hunched over a steering wheel hoping there will be treats from the parent association when I get to school.

Boulderites look relaxed.  They don’t seem rushed. Boulderites wait patiently for the walking signal before crossing a street.  Really.  And drivers really do give right of way to pedestrians in walkways.   They drive the speed limit, too.  Even during “rush” hour, which is more like 11 a.m. traffic on the Baltimore Beltway.  So Boulderites don’t get quite the “rush” that Baltimoreans do when someone tailgates us on I-83 when we are already going 80 mph.   But then again, they don’t need to rush around at 80 mph because they don’t risk a traffic jam that will net them 30 miles in an hour and a half.   Maybe that’s because so many of them are biking to work.  I even saw a mass transit bus with a bike rack on it.

When they sit with one another in cafes and restaurants, they aren’t obsessed with checking their cell phones.  (My family wishes I were a little more obsessed with checking mine, but…whatever.)  A sign at a check-out register thanks customers for not using their cell phones while checking out.  On the whole, Boulderites seem a little less distracted by constant multi-tasking, a little more present in the moment, a little more connected with people around them.

Rocky Mountain National Park, above Estes Park CO

Maybe it’s all that Celestial Seasoning tea.  I took a tour of the factory.  It’s one of those companies that makes the list of “best companies in America to work for.”  They’re very relaxed.  The plant (get it?  factory? plant? tea?) looks out on the Rocky Mountains where the company’s origins began in the hey-day of hippiness by picking local herbs to make herbal infusions.  Now it imports ingredients from all over the world and exports its blends around the world, but it is still a low-key operation existing right next door to a residential neighborhood.  The neighborhood popped up around the factory, maybe because the air smells so nice.  I bought a box of the Tension Tamer tea.   I think I need it.

No trees at 12000 ft. Just tundra and rocks.

The park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park  must drink a lot of Tension Tamer.  There we were at 12,000 feet in a tundra area with winds whipping the temperature down into the 40’s (while it was 79 in Boulder).  The ranger very nicely requested that tourists get off the tundra vegetation, which might need years to recover from their footsteps.  I personally might have threatened to drop-kick them off the mountain, but he was very nice about it.  If it wasn’t the Tension Tamer, then it must have been the high altitude.  There wasn’t enough oxygen intake for yelling.

Don’t step on the tundra plants.

Sunset from our room at the Millenium Harvest House Hotel.

Boulder sits at 5460 feet above sea level.  (Compare that to Cape May or Ocean City, altitude 0.)  T-shirts here have sayings like “Dude, I think everyone is high in Boulder.”  Some people look like they have been high since the ’60’s.  Even on the bike trail you can see what Easterners call “bums” riding bikes with silly vacant smiles on their faces and no clear destination, on the trail or in life.  Some are old hippies with long gray pony-tails and scraggly  beards.  Others are, sadly enough, young.   Of course, there are plenty of people getting a natural high from all that exercise.

As much as I long to shed my hyper multi-tasking to-do list driven life-style, I’m not going to move here and locate a unoccupied street corner to sit and play guitar.  For one thing, John is a little afraid that I’d let my hair go au naturel, which out here means long, gray, and stringy.  (And in this dry air, my humidity loving hair would be flat and dead.)  But more importantly, as much as I love to see the majestic Rocky Mountains, I could never bear to be so far away from the beach.  Give me a choice between stately, eternal mountains and the constant yet ever-changing sea, this non-hippy will go with the flow of the ocean.  Nothing gets rid of a scowl like beach week–while pondering lessons on living gleaned in Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder Creek bike trail

Next post:  good eating in Boulder.

The road less traveled…or alternate routes

An afternoon shot of a less traveled road

With the rare exception of fugitive man-hunts through our woods and the not-so-rare “incident” during rush hour, living next to Interstate 83 is a good thing.  I-83 makes it possible for Hereford Zonians to live in beautiful, rural northern Baltimore County and get to everywhere else.  And that’s the problem.  The highway is the primary travel route for most people to get to work.

My lovely commute can take me down 83, along the “Wicked Westside” of the Beltway and out I-70.  In the middle of the day or the middle of the night, the 35 mile commute takes 35 minutes.  It’s all highway.  But in rush hour, that same commute can take an hour and a half.  It only takes one little highway incident to turn a smooth ride into highway hell.

John Steinbeck, in his novel East of Eden, observed about train schedules:

The split second has been growing more and more important to us.  And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundredth, until one day…we’ll say, “Oh, the hell with it!  What’s wrong with an hour?'” But it isn’t silly, this preoccupation with small time units.  One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.

Over the years, traffic incidents at various points along my route have taught me all sorts of alternate (read that, “get me there quicker”) routes.  Adding a GPS to the car enhanced my ability to get to anywhere from anywhere.  I used to listen desperately to the travel report each morning and mentally gamble over the quickest route to work.  Is there a back-up at Padonia Road?  How big is the traffic jam on the west side of the Beltway?  A clear report was no guarantee.  One little fender-bender could throw the whole route into gridlock.

Finally I settled on a back route.  It is ten minutes longer than the highway on a good day. Since there are hardly any good days, except for someone’s holiday–state holidays, school holidays, Jewish holidays, or a really gorgeous Friday in spring–I found the “long” way to be with quick way.  And then I discovered that the long way wasn’t the long way after all.  The long way is actually five miles shorter than the highway route.  That’s ten miles a day, forty miles a month.  That’s 2,000 miles in the course of a school year!  With a  gas-efficient average speed of 50 mph and hardly any bumper-to-bumper stops and starts, the “long” way turns out to be quicker, shorter, and cheaper.

I did not settle on my road less traveled because it was a quick, short, cheap alternate route.  I settled on it because it was the road less traveled.  Fewer cars means fewer drivers to fume at, less road rage, lower blood pressure and fewer headaches.  And the scenery can’t be beat.

I haven’t embraced Steinbeck’s prediction that people might eventually say, “What’s wrong with an hour?”  I do have to get to work.  But there are days when I literally want to stop to smell the roses.  Or take a photograph…

of that mystical sunrise behind the Methodist cemetary

of the white barn glowing yellow in the eastern sunlight

of the early morning mist over the fields

of the horses and riders and dogs setting out on a hunt.

I may never take those pictures.  I am, in my preoccupation with staying employed,  preoccupied with the small time units it would cost me on my way to work.  And if I weren’t heading to work, trust me, I wouldn’t be doing that drive at that hour of the day.

I could delegate the picture-taking to someone else, but that would mean divulging my alternate route, and then it wouldn’t be a road less traveled.

A Tale of Haggis

Take a close look....vegetarian haggis? Isn't that an oxymoron?

Strolling through the Notting Hill market during my recent trip to London, I did not see Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts.  I did, however, see a sign in a butcher’s stall for haggis.  I had to take a picture of the sign.  Then I peered around to the front of the stall to see if there actually was haggis for sale.  Well, lo and behold, there it was.

Microwavable haggis.

I had to buy it.  Discovering that the two-slice package cost just one pound, I had to buy two.  I told the butcher that my husband has been threatening for years to make haggis.  The butcher laughed, “That’s quite a threat.”  He sold me the haggis, assuring me that it would be fine for the flight home.   And it was.  I…..um…..did not declare it when I went through customs.  (It was hermetically sealed.  It was fine.)  Come to find out, though, that until 2010 haggis was not permitted to come into the country.  It may have had something to do with mad cow disease, or perhaps U.S. Customs decided that we just have certain aesthetic standards to uphold.

The friendly haggis-selling butcher

John was delighted with my gift to him.  For all his culinary threats, he had never actually tasted haggis before.  So now he has.  As have I.  It’s basically Scottish scrapple.  He loves it.  I am happy for him.

And who knew there were so many ways to serve it?  According to the serving suggestions on the package, it is not only great as an accompaniment to bacon and eggs (although a bit redundant), it makes a great topper on baked potatoes, or for lunch served on a hamburger bun.  The inside label contains the MacSween Original Award Winning Recipe for Haggis Nachos.  Who knew haggis was so versatile?

For those uninitiated folk who are wondering what the heck haggis is, I offer the ingredients list from the MacSween (Guardians of Scotland’s National Dish) Haggis package:  lamb offal, beef fat, oatmeal, water, onion, salt, pepper, spices.  Except for that first ingredient, it sounds pretty tame.

Offal.  Hmm…a little foray into denotation and conotation is in order.  According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary, offal is “the waste or by-product of a process, esp. the viscera and trimmings of a butchered animal removed in dressing.”  That would sound an “awful” like what goes into scrapple or hotdogs.  According to our in-house haggis researcher John, the MacSween company would probably narrow that down to organ meats such as heart, liver, and lungs.  Americans throw that stuff away, but the rest of the world does eat it.  Anything that sounds that awful and is pronounced as such gets a bit of a negative connotation on this side of the Pond.

Ah, but haggis is what makes Scotland great.  (I know I was in England, but so were the Greeks, the Arabs, the Poles, the Irish, the French, and every one else on the planet.)  Haggis is so important to the Scots (and there are six million people of Scottish descent in the U.S., including the Hereford Zone), that the famous Scot poet Robert Burns wrote a poem about it.  Bear with me as we get literary…

Address To A Haggis

Fair full your honest, jolly face,

Great chieftain of the sausage race!

Above them all you take your place,

Stomach, tripe, or intestines:

Well are you worthy of a grace

As long as my arm.

(The rhymes work better in the original version, but you can get a feel for it nonetheless.  After some delightful verses about buttocks, “gushing entrails bright,” and swollen bellies, Burns goes on to compare the pathetic food that the “Master of the house” eats to the hearty haggis that the clearly superior rustic Scotch labourer eats…)

Poor devil!  see him over his trash,

As feeble as a withered rush,

His thin legs a good whip-lash,

His fist a nut;

Through bloody flood or field to dash,

O how unfit.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his ample fist a blade,

He will make it whistle;

And legs, and arms, and heads will crop

Like tops of thistle.

You powers, who make mankind your care,

And dish them out their bill of fare,

Old Scotland want no watery ware,

That splashes in small wooden dishes;

But if you wish her grateful prayer,

Give her a haggis!

This should really be read with a hearty voice and a Scottish accent, preferably with a glass of single malt in hand.

If you want to read the full poem, I direct you to http://www.worldburnsclub.com/poems/translations/address_t0_a_haggis.htm

In Search of London: Gin &Tonic Sorbet and Pasties

The last time I had high tea in London I was with a group of mothers and daughters.  We went to Harrod’s and had a grand time.  We ate a bazillion cute little pastries and drank so much tea that it led to Kristin’s famous bed-time utterance “My little heart is beating very fast.”  This time Kristin booked us for tea at the Kensington Hotel in Princess Di’s old neighborhood.  The Kensington is a gorgeous five star hotel that I can only afford to have tea in.  It reminds me of my grandmother Noona.  My sister Theresa would love it.  My cousin Denise would love it.  We loved it. We only had four cups of tea and a glass of champagne but Kristin’s face turned a really cute pink and I’m pretty darn sure it was not from the champagne.  She seems to be caffeine impaired.

But I’m still searching for London.  The tea sandwiches were quite British and the gin & tonic sorbet was quintessentially British, but the waiter was French.  He served us Moet champagne and concombre sandwiches with a very French accent.  At the table to my right a couple conversed in French.  Then two women were seated directly to my left and they were conversing in French.  I had a hard time eavesdropping while still maintaining an intelligent conversation with Kristin, but an awful lot of things were apparently jolie.  At the end of our delightful tea I asked Gregoire for directions to the ladies room.

“????????? said he.   (I don’t know what he said, but it was unintelligible English.)

“Les toilettes?” said I.

“Ah oui, les toilettes!” said he.

“Le français, c’est plus pratique!” said I.

“Bonne journée, Madame.”

A meal of pasties

On our way home via the Tube, we stopped at a pasty store to pick up dinner.  Pasties are not things ladies wear at the Folies Bergères in Paris.  They are individual meat pies that you can eat like a sandwich or taco,  but they are wrapped in pastry like a pie.  We got four:  a traditional Cornish meat and potato, a lamb and mint, a cheese and veggie, and  an onion cheese.  Yum.  They were just the right kind of savory for after a sweet high tea.

Little lord of the pasties

So Kristin and I are now scheming on how to make a gin & tonic sorbet.  The waiter consulted the chef for us, who said it was just a simple sorbet with gin & tonic added and processed in an ice cream maker.  Methinks there will be some experimentation going on when I get home.  The sorbet was topped with a garnish of sweet crunchy mint leaves.  After a long analytical discussion over the mint leaves (That’s part of why we were at tea for four hours, Mario), we think the leaves were dipped in a simple syrup and then frozen and crumbled over the sorbet.  More experimentation to do at home.  Ah, ah, those mint leaves would be great on so many things…vanilla ice cream, starters.

By now daughter Shelley is drooling and saying, “Mom, come home quick!”  Ok, ok, but right now I have to dash out the door to see the Greek Orthodox Good Friday procession across the street.  Tomorrow we’re off to Notting Hill in the ongoing search for London.

The little lord with his scepter--and he knows how to use it

Live from London

I  think I’m in London.  That’s where the plane landed.  And there are red double-decker buses lumbering down the streets.  The traffic goes in the wrong direction.  Yield signs say “Give way” and exit signs read “Way out.”  I have pounds, not dollars or euros, in my purse.  We take the Tube (or the Underground) to get anywhere.  We went to the British Museum–that’s in London, right?

This tourist doesn't speak Greek yet, but his Nonna is working on it.

At the British museum, where we went with Mario’s mother (native-born Greek with undergrad degree in archeology), we saw the Elgin Marbles.  They are not marbles as in, “I’ve lost my marbles” or that childhood game of little round balls that my mother used to play.  The Elgin Marbles are the phenomenal marble friezes and statues that once ornamented the Parthenon in Athens.  The Brits acquired them with permission of the Turks.  Greeks prefer the word “stolen.”  At any rate, there were quite a few Greek speaking tourists at the museum.

Rosetta Stone--the stone, not the language program

At the Rosetta Stone exhibit there was, appropriately, a variety of nationalities snapping photos.  I was near a crowd of Asians but heard French schoolchildren pass by, clearly on a school trip.  Their teacher spoke in French with a universal message: “Il faut faire attention.  Je ne vais pas retourner” (You need to pay attention.  I’m not coming back.)  French graffiti adorned the ladies room stall.  Alas, it was pathetic in its unoriginality.  However, there was enough French being spoken to have me very close to saying, “Excusez-moi” as I made my way around.

Trivia quiz: What is this?

The abundance of Egyptian artifacts at the British museum comes in second to the abundance of Arab-speaking residents in the Shepherd’s Bush area of London where daughter and son-in-law live.  Many shoppers in the local open air market wear burkas. Kristin is just as likely to visit an Irish butcher as a Polish butcher as a Halal butcher.  We stopped at a small grocery on Wednesday and had no trouble with the produce–an eggplant is an eggplant no matter what your language calls it.  The boxed goods, however, had us using all sorts of context clues to guess the product.  Was that a bag of cat food or dishwasher detergent?  The labeling was all in Arabic.  Kristin and I put our two brain cells together and figured out that the circles represented bubbles, so it was a cleaning product.  But what kind?  Oh…….there is a shirt on the label.  It must be laundry machine soap.  We bought some Coca-Cola because the bottles were in Arabic and it was made with sugar, not corn syrup.  We haven’t drunk it yet.  We mostly just wanted the bottles.

Fitzroy Tavern, London

After our visit to the British Museum with all of its non-British artifacts, we tasted local Britain with a Taddy lager on draft at the Fitzroy Tavern, a favorite pub of Charles Dickens and many other artists and writers.  We might have stayed for dinner but the number of heavy drinking tourists has led management to ban children after 6 p.m. when they begin serving dinner. Just as well. Baby John did a full forward head bang onto the table and Kristin had to chug her beer so we could leave.  (No, we were not the heavy drinking tourists!)

Friday’s itinerary has Kristin and me going to the Kensington Hotel for high tea.  Saturday we’re off to the market at Notting Hill.   And Sunday’s tour will include not only Kristin’s and Mario’s offices, but a spin into Harry Potter land.  That’s all really rather quite British.

At the British Museum