Eating well acrosss the continent

We’ve eaten rather well on our trip: from street food in Hong Kong to great London pub food and Scottish specialities. In London we would take a break from our walking and sightseeing to have a beer and a bite to eat. I’m not a beer drinker but the beers in the UK are very different to those back home. They’re full of flavour and as different in their complexity as wine. So, when in Rome…… However, one pint is my limit. Thereafter I need to revert to wine; most pubs had a good selection of wine by the glass. English pies are a British pub food specialty (as are fish and chips) and these are nothing like the pies back home, they’re hand made and sensational, particularly ones with ale and game (eg, ale and venison). And of course chips, hand made and crisp I couldn’t go past these. And because we walked so much each day I figured I could indulge.

In Scotland, haggis was the choice du jour. I love haggis. Its rich and flavousome, peppery and spicy and tastes very much like the Spanish morcia. I took every opportunity to order this. I just wish it wasn’t served with neeps and tatties (that’s turnips nad mashed potatoes) though I must admit that they do go very well together. My preference would be for haggis to be served with a rocket and tomato salad but I guess in the cold weather people want something filling and sustaining. And so to porridge. Another Scottish speciality. They cook it with salt but also serve it with whisky, brown sugar and cream. Its heavenly and a wonderful way to start your day. Especially when its only 3 degrees outside.

In Oban, home of the malt whisky of the same name, we indulged in local seafood – scallops from Mull, langoustines and huge oysters. Scottish hot and cold smoked salmon came in a variety of forms. And then there was game: pigeon, partridge, pheasant, grouse and venison. Grouse is very strong in flavour, much more so than pigeon or partridge or pheasant, due to the fact that it subsists on a diet of wild heather. Venison was similar to kangaroo – very lean so it could be cooked quite rare and a very mild gamey taste. In Oban I had a superbly cooked venison saddle with spiced red cabbage, pickled walnuts and a chive and truffle mash. It was sensational and the venison was so perfectly cooked that I wondered how this was done (it was a very thick cut). I thought it would have been seared in a pan and then finished off in the oven but turns out that it was all done in a pan because it was cooked rare. For medium rare it would be first seared then finished off in the oven. On the Isle of Skye I had a wonderful confit of duck leg served with julienned vegetables – beetroot, carrot, spring onion, coriander – with a thai style dressing. Inspired. And this from a bar menu. True, the bar food came from the same kitchen that serves the dining room which has won awards and a Michelin star. Venison shin with bone marrow jelly. Sounds weird but it was wonderful. The venison is slowly cooked until it falls apart (much like slow cooked lamb) and is then put into a mould (like a timbale) and the jelly on the outside.

Over the channel we wanted to experience good traditional French food: escargot, steak tartare, coquilles St Jacque, pot au feau, confit of duck, rabbit in mustard sauce and of course, pates and rillettes, cheese and baguettes. Generallly we just wondered until we found a bistro that appealed to us – spoilt for choice, there are bistros everywhere, mostly serving much the same. One day, walking through Montmartre we spotted a little Coriscan bistro. It was very small but they had a range of charcuteire plates and all we really wanted was a bite to eat, rather than a meal. The young woman who ran the place was friendly and welcoming and despite not speaking much English, but was very chatty. We had a fabulous white beer and then the house red wine (which was excellent) and a mixed cheese and charcuteire plate. And then we sat outside with our cofees and watched the world go by.

I’ve never eaten so much on a holiday (or at home for that matter). We generally only have breakfast and then dinner. But who could go past all these wonderful foods. We’ve come back slightly heavier but happier for the experience.

Parisian hospitality

So often I have heard people complain  that Parisians – more generally, French – are rude and inhospitable; up themselves. I’ve not encountered this. In fact I’ve been pleasantly surprised and delighted with how friendly and customer service savvy they are. You can’t enter a shop or department store or indeed any section of a store or a cafe, bar or bistro without people saying hello. Bonjour Madame. So nice. And they look you in the eye and are all too happy to engage with you no matter what your level of French or their English. And there’s always a friendly bonjour, merci, au revoir at the end. I love the French. They don’t make me feel like an outsider; they make we feel welcome. I only wish I could speak the language fluently. I would so love to be able to banter and converse with them. They have a sense of fun – a joie de vivre.

Back in London I found myself saying “Bonjour monsieur” etc only to realise I was in a different country now and nobody really greeted you or cared. Somehow saying bonjour/bonsoir monsieur/madame has a nice ring to it.  Its not just ‘hello’ its an acknowledgement.  But I can’t imagine anyone in Australia saying “good day madam”.  Just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  So vive la France!

Paris – a city of contradictions

Paris is a a magnificent city – romantic and grand. It’s because of all the neo-classical buildings. Napoleon commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussmann to rebuild the city – a massive public works program that included the demolition of crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, the building of wide avenues, parks and squares, the construction of new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. Haussmann was a genius. When you stand at the centre and overlook all the boulevards you have to be in awe at just how remarkable this man’s vision was, particularly when you think of what the dirty and infested city was like before. Boulevarde Huassmann with its grand stores – Galaries Lafayette and Au Printempts are shopping meccas. Still, I wish that some of the places such as the original Marais and Les Halles still exisited though I’m sure that the residents were delighted with the clean up (despite the huge resistance at the time).

As I walk around all the grand palaces and museums, the opulence is astonishing. Makes London look a bit like a poor relative. It’s opulent on a grand scale. Haussmann’s conception of Paris was a paradise for the bourgeoisie. No wonder the peasants revolted.

It was we were heading out to the airport on our way back to London that a very different side of Paris emerged: graffiti covered every surface of wall space; the backs of houses looked derelict and what I at first mistook for rubbish dumps turned out to be slum dwellings, structures built around twigs and put together with old mattresses, cardboard and other bits and pieces. The only reason I could tell they weren’t simply piles of rubbish is that most of them had some sort of pipe coming from the top – no doubt a crudely made chimney for cooking. I saw a small boy climbing on the high wire fence that was only a metre or so in front of the dwellings; and some washing hanging on the bare branches of trees. And refuse.Everywhere refuse. Signs of life. Like the slums of Bombay except there they would be picking through each and every piece of discarded rubbish to sell and trade to make a living. How do these people survive? On the streets of Paris, as in London, Edinburgh and even Sydney, there were homeless people sleeping on the streets (many with dogs who seemed to be better cared for than their owners). It seems to have become common for people to fall out of the system. The homeless are increasingly everywhere. It its always such a shock to see them in the streets where metres away are the grand magazines: Au Printemps, Galleries Lafayette, Au Bon Marche and La Samaritan. In Sydney it’s the same; you’ll find them on the corners next to David Jones and Westfield (Sydney’s answer to high end shopping). Perhaps they think that those who have spent an excess of dollars on needless indulgences will feel conpelled to throw them some coins.

The seamier side of a city is as interesting as its grand centre and somehow more honest and revealing. I read reviews of people advising against staying in Rue St Denis.  I have to disagree.  I love this place – its full of life: a vast array of types, nationalities and cultures.  I’ve never felt unsafe here (we stayed here some many years ago and felt that we were in the heart of the city).  Sure there are prostitutes and drugs and its seedy but isn’t that what a city is all about?  I’ve never been bothered or harassed – or propositioned – and I’ve enjoyed the energy day and night.  Its colourful and exotic.  As a tourist I think its as charming as its grand neoclassical counterpart.  Both form part of the texture of the experience of a city.