28 March 2009

Whac-a-mole and the middle ages: The Cluny

Yesterday I went to the Musée National du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages), aka the Cluny museum. Housed in former Roman thermal baths (from ~ 2nd century AD) and the Cluny Abbey (15th century), the structures alone are worth the 8 euro entry fee. But most people go for the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, the Mona Lisa of the Cluny.

The museum has lots of other tapestries from the same era on display on the lower floor to get you worked up into a tapestry lather before you get to the Lady and the Unicorn series upstairs. They're all interesting visually-- and apparently, to at least one pair of grouchy old French ladies who wandered from tapestry to tapestry pawing each of them, tactilely-- but in the end they serve to emphasize just how elegant and lush the Lady and her friends are. Woven in the 15th century to the fantasy of just about any 5 year old girl, the 6 tapestries depict a noble Lady and her trusty white Unicorn engaged in various hijinks illustrating the 5 senses. Each of the 6 tapestries also depicts a lion, which apparently didn't market test well enough to get equal billing in the headline, while the Lady's handmaiden (whose job is mostly to hold things) and a monkey (who, like me, doesn't seem to have a job at all) make guest appearances in 4 tapestries each. Birds, sheep, bunnies, and other cute creatures make up an entertaining supporting cast.

Much has been written about the color and detail of the tapestries, but seeing them in person is another thing entirely, and there were several details I had not seen noted in the expert commentary. Though she's lovely and lithe, the Lady definitely has man-hands. Reaching into the candy bowl in Taste or playing the organ in Hearing, her digits look better suited to unclogging toilets or working a jackhammer. Maybe that's a perspective thing, or maybe giant hands and sausage fingers were a sign of good breeding in the Middle Ages. The monkey in the tapestries highlights the emphasis on the senses. In Taste he's eating a candy, in Smell he's smelling a flower. So what does it mean that in Touch that he's collared and chained to a large grinding stone? Did he cop a feel in a panel that was later deleted? He's missing entirely in Hearing, perhaps an indication that the Lady hasn't yet completed her course of organ lessons. The highlight for me was the facial expressions in Sight, in which the Lady holds a small mirror into which the Unicorn looks. The Unicorn is clearly enthralled with its own reflection, while the Lady looks on with an expression that says that she's very much over the Unicorn's vanity. The 6th tapestry is something of a mystery and has widely varying interpretations. The tent bears the inscription to my only desire and shows the Lady placing (or taking?) a jeweled necklace into/out of a box held by the handmaiden, proving perhaps that diamonds have always been a girl's best friend.

Even ignoring these superstar tapestries, there's a lot of cool stuff in the museum, from giant pillars to tiny daily objects. One that made me stop and think a minute was a set of 5 two-inch long bronze and bone adzes and ice picks that were labeled tooth picks and ear picks. Was the pointy end (no less than 2 mm square-- apparently the spaces between teeth were wider before modern dentistry) used for teeth and the adzy-end used for ears? Aside from the unpleasant thought of what might be in an ear that it would require an ice-pick to remove, it suggests a greater attention to hygiene than I'd have imagined in the 1400s.

The combination of heavy and light, bulky and delicate, is particularly interesting in the products of the Middle Ages. I've never really dug the furniture of the era-- heavy and clunky with none of the lightness or detail in the carving of the dedicated wood sculptures in the museum (or even the building structural elements-- the museum has both a 3-story high newel from a spiral staircase, carved elegantly to look like a twisting bundle of long sticks, and a wooden support beam carved with nordic-inspired dragon heads on both ends), let alone the extremely fine stone work. But the metal work is a powerful juxtaposition of heavy and light, massive hinges with rosettes cut away to leave a pattern of delicate spines with fine pointed teeth on them. Such superb craftsmanship is also evident in the small pieces of carved ivory and bone and especially in the wooden combs with perfectly, and tightly, spaced long teeth.

But perhaps my favorite part of the whole museum were 3 “books,” collections of pages from different sources compiled into hinged frames, of illuminated manuscripts. Though many illuminated texts have large elaborate images with just a little text, the examples at the Cluny tend towards large pages of text with miniature illustrations in incredibly vibrant colors. One text on the Last Judgement from the 15th century had a small, maybe 2” x 3”, panel in the text depicting Christ in the sky, sitting in judgment. Below him was an emerald-green flat earth with 3 or 4 graves, sharp rectangular openings in the earth, from which intact bodies were in various states of emergence, presumably to be judged. The intensity of the colors and crispness of the ink lines were amazing. To this 21st century observer it looked like nothing so much as the Ultimate game of whac-a-mole.

Another manuscript, a page from a small antiphonary (a liturgical text), had a small box of music notation surrounded by an especially exuberant garden of vines and leaves in the wide margins. These kinds of texts especially appeal to my OCD tendencies with their very fine, sharp lines and repeating patterns, and though the texts are mostly serious sacred documents, the artwork in some of them is surprisingly whimsical. Among the various tiny real and imaginary fauna inhabiting the garden in the margins was a naked dude riding a giant snail, the dude grasping the snail's gigantic antennae as if working a crane. It's been awhile since I've read the Bible, but I'm pretty certain I'd remember mention of naked people riding snails. 

So say what you want about the glorious Renaissance with its fancy-pants linear perspective and educational reform-- I'm betting the monks of the Middle Ages were a lot more fun to party with.

24 March 2009

La Poste

Yesterday I had to mail my first letter back home. Not wanting to find out first-hand if the French mail service has inspired slang equivalent to going postal, I pulled up the La Poste website to get as much info as I could before burdening the post office with my confusion.

The website certainly defies any reputation for lack of efficiency or consideration of outsiders in France. It was fine art for the logically minded-- clearly laid out, with separate sections specifically for those coming to France and even those foreigners already living in France (hey, that's me!). I found the information I needed in about a minute. When I got to the post office itself, I was able to buy my international fare from a machine, which included a scale for weighing my letter, in less than another minute. Awesome from start to finish. Major props to La Poste for thinking it all through.

Since I'm healing and getting bored already at Longchamps, I wanted maps of the surrounding areas of Paris to help scope out more interesting cycling routes. Michelin maps and atlases abound here, not surprisingly, but our experience with them is that they're so busy with colors and other nonsense that they're hard to use for biking. Certainly they're no Touring Club Italiano maps.

Searching first at our local bookstore and then the gigantic fnac on av des Ternes (a Borders/Tower/Best Buy hybrid), I found an Institut Geographique National map of Ile-de-France that has 100 bike routes on it. Now this was an unexpected score. None of them is especially long, but they can easily be linked to explore most of the outlying areas. Tres, tres cool!

As can be seen in the photo above, the rides are quite a ways from the city itself, and the scale of the map is such that the actual roads are difficult to make out. So I needed a higher-resolution atlas of the whole department as a reference tool. Finding an atlas, even finding one in the right scale, wasn't a challenge. Finding one I could use, though, was near-impossible. 

We have a whole series of atlases (made by ADC, mostly) of the counties in PA, NJ, DE, and MD where we ride most often. A grid with page numbers on it is laid over the county, and it's pretty easy to navigate from one page to the next: as long as you move east and west within the county, you just turn the page and the map continues. For moves north and south, you have to skip some pages to find the next horizontal run, but the page connections are clearly marked, and the grids align in all directions, so it's easy to explore the region by browsing the atlas.

The atlases I found of the greater Paris region are instead broken out by townships, with each township getting as many pages of maps as its size warrants with an index of streets. I still haven't figured out what determines the order of listing of townships, but it isn't proximity, that's for sure. Instead of being an unbiased presentation of the area, then, it's a collection of mini-atlases. I guess this works if you know exactly where you need to be, but for understanding the interconnectedness of a place, it's very perplexing. Most of these atlases don't even indicate on the margins of the maps what the adjoining page is. So you need to look up the next town (presumably you have a non-French atlas to figure that out) in the master index, and then go.

Sometimes exposure to a new paradigm can be exciting or enlightening, and I kept thinking that there was a logic I hadn't yet discerned, and that as soon as I uncovered it, all would make sense. But if the atlases are a glimpse into the workings of the French Mind, then either the French Mind's root directory is bureaucratic administrations and departments, or it likes collecting maps of places it already knows. Perhaps both. As tools to understand the geography of a place you don't already know, these atlases are nearly useless and as much as La Poste website made being that aspect of a foreigner here very easy, the atlases, intentionally or not, severely handicap outsiders.

In the end, I bought an atlas of Ile de France from Plan-Net that is set up by administrative borders, but at least tells which pages connect. That this accommodation for the non-native does not make sense to the makers is belied by the fact that none of the adjoining pages actually align vertically or horizontally or even use the same alphanumerical grid. It's as though each of the 300-some pages was made by a different individual and then assembled together into the atlas.

Maybe it's all a deliberate effort to thwart another German expansion. Regardless, I say give La Poste a crack at it.

Planet Armstrong

What little time we spend in front of the television in Paris is spent almost entirely with Eurosport. Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-San Remo (yes, there are bike races without hyphens in them) were all shown live, and a steady stream of other sports similarly neglected in US television coverage, such as biathlon, ski jumping, alpine skiing, means that there's often something interesting to watch if we happen to be home and in need of entertainment.

Though Eurosport is a British venture, the video feeds get local commentators in the other European countries. Jacky Durand, a French former pro cyclist known for long, usually (but not always: see several TdF stage wins, Paris-Tours 1998, and Tour of Flanders 1992 after 200+ km in a break) futile escape attempts, is one of the Eurosport France cycling commentators. During the Tirreno-Adriatico stage 5 time trial, I swear I heard him say, "This is the perfect stage to get in a breakaway and go for the stage win." Crazy Jacky.

But I'm most entertained by the silly, and a little snarky, Planet Armstrong episodes, 2-3 minute productions that follow Big Tex's comeback to the pro peleton. The opening sequences and graphics tell you pretty much everything you need to know about where the vignettes are coming from. While the European press has viewed Armstrong with suspicion throughout his post-cancer career (one Irish journalist referred to Armstrong's return as the cancer being out of remission) and has been less than excited about BT's comeback, Planet Armstrong is more amused by and gently mocking of his star power than accusatory of his methods of winning. Maybe that's because he hasn't won anything, yet. Still, they don't miss an opportunity to show his foibles (having his Livestrong press conference in Austin shut down because they didn't get proper permits, highlighting the interviews with other riders who can't quite hide the fact that he's still not one of the people). Interestingly, the French versions seem less intent to dwell on those angles than the British.

You can view a few episodes here and here in French, and in English here and here (same as the first French one). The best part of the English versions are the brief twisted ads featuring suicidal Cadbury Creme Eggs (more easily viewed in these YouTube clips: 1, 2, 3, 4the rest). 

22 March 2009

Panique attack

We went to the Bastille marché Sunday morning, one of Paris' largest outdoor markets. Whether you seek inexpensive clothes, raw-milk cheese, fish, pig-head pate, or as we bought, perhaps the best big fat green olives I've ever tasted (from an "artisinal" olive vendor (whatever that means) that nearly knocked my socks off-- wow, wow, wow), disappointing fake-ripe strawberries (clearly gassed; we were suckered into them because I bought a small batch of real ripe and sweet ones from a smaller market Sat morning), an outstanding loaf of bread in a city that has a lot of good bread, and some deliciously funky african lamb curry with bright yellow rice with some insanely tasty meat pastry turnovers possessing a little heat up front and a long-lasting gentle cinnamon finish, chances are you'll find it there. A good morning's haul, really.

But none of that wound up in this week's Sunday Night Risotto. What did wind up in the risotto was the chicken stock I made Saturday from the economy brand supermarket chicken, since the butcher I went to in the morning said he didn't do chicken carcasses (you don't see a lot of chicken parts for sale at real butchers-- it's a whole-chicken-or-nothing buying experience) and some promising looking asparagus from the Bastille market. The asparagus was, in fact, quite good, making for a very tasting-of-spring risotto.

That was a lot simpler than our second dinner out in Paris Fri night, when we ventured into the 10e to visit Cafe Panique. As the website indicates, the chef is self-taught and, somewhat unusually in Paris, a woman. Terrific and influential women chefs are more common in the US, I can think of Alice Waters, Anita Lo, Lidia Bastianich, and Alison Barshak off the top of my head, but they're still underrepresented. Hopefully that'll continue to change. More importantly for our dinner, Cafe Panique is reputed to serve good and creative food and offer good value at a little north of 30 euros for a 3-course meal.

I've started carrying around a small notebook and pen to write down words I don't know or addresses of places I stumble on in my wanderings. The menu contained lots of words I didn't know, a little stressful when you're allergic to shellfish and a missed reference to a mollusk or shrimp variety can have very significant consequences, but you roll the dice and play the odds. Since the menu was posted outside, I decided I'd make my notes on words to look up later more discretely after dinner. Unfortunately, they'd taken the menu outside down by the time we left, so my understanding of what I ate is incomplete.

Most of the food, whatever it may have been, was bright and fresh. Karen had the tuna "mi-cuit", or half-cooked, with a watercress cream and a mini radish salad, pictured below. Very nice flavors and textures-- I'm increasingly fond of the use of salt (in this case on the tuna) as a textural seasoning. You get the tuna flavor and a little burst, and crunch, of the salt with it-- very nice. I had 2 large ravioli filled with lightly smoked duck breast with some kind of foam that was vaguely nutty (in a chestnutty kind of way, but I didn't see either marron or châtaigne, the 2 words I know for chestnuts). Also very good. 

For mains, Karen had a rack of lamb with spring vegetables, which though cooked past the requested rosé, was still thankfully both tender and juicy. I had seared cod over braised shallots and chestnuts, which was a nice combination. I am a sucker for chestnuts in just about any guise, and there are plenty of opportunities to eat them here. For desserts, Karen had a chocolate cake with an orange confit (bitter orange and chocolate is an old favorite, back to days in Ithaca where the best ice cream shop in town made a killer chocolate ice cream with veins of orange in it), whereas I had a filo dough contraption filled with an almond cream and accompanied by a hibiscus syrup, the remains of which are pictured, rather abstractly (or ineptly-- your call) below. 

Add in a nice bottle of wine, and aside from the overcooking issue, it was a very enjoyable and affordable meal. No regrets in using one of our dining out tickets there.

21 March 2009

Let's Ride!

There are a lot of bike lanes in Paris, which makes it great to get from one point to another in the city. Riding through the city is not a particularly good workout, however, since there are too many intersections and most of the city is flat.

And we're not talking the side of the road nominally called a bike lane in which busses drive, cars and delivery vans double park, etc; we're talking separated by a raised curb on the opposite side from parked cars bike lane.

In case you are confused when the curb goes away in the intersections, just follow the guys on bikes.
As Rolf had alredy described, we're close to Longchamps in the Bois de Boulogne. Much of the loop is either completely dedicated to bike traffic (as long as there isn't a horse race going on) or at least reasonably protected from car traffic. It is a great, if boring, place to do flat intervals- you can do loops forever without having to stop. When I've done training rides on early weekday mornings, there were a few other people out. But on weekends, it's a mob scene.

Fast groups, slow groups, nice bikes, beater bikes, young kids, ancient guys, the whole spectrum on 2 wheels is there.
When Rolf heals some more, we'll start exploring the further reaches. We've now got a whole stack of maps to work from.

20 March 2009


My sister is the sole possessor of artistic ability in our generation of my family. One summer in high school, she was asked to paint a mural in a long curving hallway in the school's performing arts building, and she designed a stylized larger-than-life representation of the musculature of a human, cartwheeling along the hallway. Since her stencil was big and a little unwieldy, I did the tall-guy thing and helped her hang and move the stencil for a couple of days. She did a great job, and for all I know the mural's still there, 20-some years later.

I haven't thought about that for a very long time, but seeing these figures this afternoon as I was walking in the 4th arrondissement reminded me of it and my sister's talent.

Spinning circles

The bikes did indeed arrive late last week, and so I've spent a few hours on the trainer on our balcony since then. It was fun for about 3 minutes on the first day, and then I remembered why I hate the trainer. At least it's been cool (mid-40s - 50s) and plenty breezy when I've been out there. Even so, it's not long before I overheat, raising questions about how anybody can ride one of those things in a heated house. And no, objects in the camera are unfortunately not larger than real life.

At least the views down to the street are more interesting than those riding in the basement at home. Though this picture was taken during a quiet moment this afternoon, there's quite a lot of foot traffic in the morning, so I've been able to watch the ants while riding. Good thing I left my magnifying glass at home. Note the blossoming trees and shrubs-- spring is just short of exploding here.

Since my ribs tolerated a few trainer rides, and my butt and knees are begging for more varied riding positions, we've started riding the Longchamps circuit in the Bois de Boulogne, a large green park just a 9-min ride with traffic from the apartment. The Bois used to be real woods used as the hunting grounds for the various Louis(s-- how does one pluralize louis?), then cleared in Napoleon's time before being converted into a planned vaguely woods-ish park in the late 19th c., now replete with busy roads and ample foot and bike paths. There's a 2.2-mile loop around one of the 2 hippodromes (not places to race hippos, thankfully, though that wouldn't be without its interest) there dedicated for bike traffic, and it's the major riding locale for people in the western part of the city. Apparently there are hard-core training races there some evenings.

Whereas going around endlessly in small circles isn't exactly what cycling in France brings to mind,  having the Longchamps so close is a godsend in my current state of fitness and healing. Plus, it's got a windmill at one end of the oval, which kind of makes it feel like playing Putt-Putt.

And putt-putt pretty well describes my riding right now-- I'm tasting lung just trying to move fast enough to stay upright. Nowhere to go but up.

19 March 2009

La Greve

We've only been in France 3 weeks, and already, our first strike! The French live for going on strike. This was a Greve Generale, which took place all over the country, as best as I can tell was to protest to Sarkozy that no one is making enough money with La Crise going on.

I was warned by coworkers that there would be massive disruption; my closest colleague would take the day off since his daughter's school would be closed, that all mass transit would cease, and 100,000s would protest in the streets of Paris. The workers have to make advance anouncements to go on strike, so everyone gets to plan ahead.

As the day approached, the story was that in fact the Metro would run, a little bit. On my way to work yesterday, I saw a schedule in the RER station of the trains that would run, and the Paris Metro [newspaper- just like Philadelphia, but in French] said that the Metro [subway] would be at about 30% service.

Last weekend I had been scoping out possible bike routes if I was going to have to ride to work (probably easily doable, but tricky to figure out how to cross the Seine and avoid the major highways that are the route for car traffic), but was concerned about bringing my bike to work and into the building after my near-knockdown-drag out with security last summer at my Collegeville worksite over bringing my bike inside.

So I decided to chance it and take the Metro. I got up early, anticipating a long commute. I charged my iPod, brought a New Yorker, I was set to have to WAIT. I got to the Rue de la Pompe station, I had just missed a train, and the next one would arrive in.... 3 minutes. Not crowded, I got to Franklin D. Roosevelt just fine. Switched to the 1 line to La Defense, again pretty quick connection, not too crowded. Here we had a little difficulty- the train was slower than normal, and stopped a few times between stations. The station at La Defense was notably less crowded than usual, as was the plaza. I got to work in about 10 minutes more than usual, but given that I had left so early, about 15 minutes before I usually show up.

There were a few absences, but for the most part people were there, life went on. No problems at all getting home either.

The 40 day SEPTA strike of 1998, now that was a strike...

Eat your iron

One of the things I like to look at while out wandering around in Paris is the iron work. With all of the Beaux Arts buildings around town, there's no shortage of ornate iron work on balconies and such. Occasionally, though, you come across something that goes a bit above and beyond, such as this work on the wall of a building at the end of a blind square in the 7th, next to the Société Théosophique de France. There was an exuberant hand-wrought gate and fence in front of it that I didn't get a good picture of.

On the other end of the spectrum, just a few doors down, was this very elegant and restrained design, one of my favorite doors so far.

With that still in my head, tonight I made cavatelli, rather than long pasta, for dinner. An simple spiral that works great for catching sauce, they're also a lot of fun and easy to make, unlike rolling the picci last night in the hyper-dry air.

18 March 2009

Coffee, part deux

So far, a drinkable shot of espresso in Paris has escaped my grasp (but stay tuned-- hope springs eternal). We will probably not be here long enough to warrant buying a real espresso machine, but Madame C had offered us the use of her Nespresso machine in Feb when we signed the lease, and sure enough, it was in the apartment when we arrived. 

It's not as shiny or heavy as Alex, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. Never having tried the stuff, I figured it was worth a shot (sorry, couldn't help myself).

For those not familiar, Nespresso is pod coffee, little plastic containers filled with coffee and covered with a foil cap that gets pierced when loaded into the appropriate machine. It's a lot like the pod coffee machines at your work or the car dealer, etc, but espresso style, instead of drip-style. 

According to the marketing hype (and there's plenty), you get all of the advantages of fresh-sealed, high-quality coffee, and you get the face of George Clooney, too, in very large and very stylish black-and-white photos promoting the product.  The technology and George get you a perfect cup of espresso, the website tells you, as evidenced by the fact that sugar poured onto the top of it takes some number of seconds to dissolve. That's kind of like saying you can tell the quality of a painting by how quickly water seeps through it if poured on the surface, but whatever-- everybody needs a yardstick.

Anyway, one can buy these magic pods online relatively cheaply, about $0.40 per pod. But since we live in Paris, there are several dedicated Nespresso stores in town, and I decided to visit the one nearest us. At $0.40 a pod, it'd be self-service, pretty easy and quick to negotiate.

The locations of the stores should have been a tip-off. Two are within walking distance of the Arc de Triomphe, and another in the ritzy 7th. 

The fact that the stores are in fact called boutiques, and there's a Nespresso magazine, should have been another tip-off. But I didn't get it. Until I went.

I went to the store, er, boutique on av Victor Hugo, which is a pleasant walk from our apartment. The shop next door is a boutique of Patrick Roger, a high priest of chocolates in a city renowned for its outstanding confectures and particularly well known for his whimsical store windows, full of chocolate sculpture.

Not to be outdone, the Nespresso boutique window has its own (pretentious?) window vibe going, and it carries inside, which is huge and full of chocolate, make that espresso, browns and very sleek styling. It's kind of hard to notice that right away, though, because the moment you step through the glass doors, two attractive young blond women attack dogs in blue suits demand whether you want capsules (and spoken in French, capsules sounds so much more boutiquey than pods ever could). Yes, please, and one of them touches a sleek free-standing plasma screen that prints out a number. On one of the interior dividing walls, there's another screen that shows which numbers are being cared for by which facilitators. Very very luxurious, the whole thing. I guess you've got to give Nespresso credit-- they figured out that people elbowing each other in the ribs to move forward in line, however Parisian even in the swank neighborhoods, would not mesh with their carefully forged image.

The wait for my facilitator, another attractive young blond woman without much warmth, was about 20 minutes. No telling what the people ahead of me were purchasing that it took so long. Nobody had to stand in line, though; there was a coffee bar in the rear of the space and lots of very fancy luxurious displays to admire while waiting. I'd done my research online, so I didn't need much facilitating. I figured that trying just 1 coffee wouldn't tell me enough to let me know whether, if it weren't magnificent, I should bother waiting another 20 minutes to try another type, so I bought 1 sleeve of 10 pods for each of 3 espressos: the ristretto, their strongest, the Roma, their 3rd strongest, and their decaf. All told, less than 10 euros. The 3 small sleeves went into a very nice shopping bag (which I promptly stuffed into my messenger bag, since I was out walking the rest of the day-- maybe that's why my facilitator wasn't showing any love). To support posh boutiques like that all over Paris, they must either have another source of income or be putting less than a percent that cost into the product itself.

The whole surreally luxurious buying experience, so out of keeping with coffee in a small plastic bucket, must really appeal to people here, because the shops are always busy, which must in turn mean that people are drinking the coffee. Having tasted all three of mine the first day, I can't honestly understand why. It tastes maybe marginally better than the coffee served by the professionals here, but it's still not really coffee. Perhaps I'd be more impressed if I'd timed some sugar dissolving.

Clearly, the coffee conundrum isn't solved. I still have one more option, but it's proving logistically challenging.

Coffee pods in my bag, I went out to get our daily bread, this time to a shop just off Place des Ternes, one of the many outposts of star boulanger Eric Kayser. I've tried several of his breads, and so far they're all good. Crispy crusts, moist, chewy, webby interiors with full flavor developed during long fermentation. This one is the baguette rustique.

The shop on av Ternes is right across from rue Poncelet, a market street where one of our candidate apartments was located. There are lots of great shops, and there are a few places one can buy grilled or boiled sausages like this one, and put it in the great bread you just bought for a quick and tasty lunch on the run.

It's best while getting your food frenzy groove on to keep your wits about you, though, because that sausage could very well come from here:

I'm not one to judge where the arbitrary line of OK and not-OK eating is (horse fat is rumored to make exquisite frites, BTW). Come to think of it, horse is probably pretty far down the list of potentially objectionable things you're likely to find in just about any sausage, including the hot dogs at your nearest ball park.

17 March 2009

Chestnuts and chocolate

We generally eat pasta most weeknights for dinner. I'll make several nights' worth of “sauce,” whether that's radicchio and pancetta, or greens and garlic, or if I'm short on time a quickly cooked tomato and tuna (don't make that face if you haven't tried it) and then make pasta fresh each night and toss with the sauce. In the summer, we eat mostly hot pasta tossed in fresh, uncooked heirloom tomatoes and herbs. Simple but darn near perfect.

When my employment thinned this fall, we kept that approach, but since time was a little less precious, I started making home-made pasta more often. I was on a stuffed-pasta kick for awhile, particularly agnolotti, which are great self-closers. Stuffed with chestnuts, or almonds, or cheese and a bit of pear, or sweet potatoes and sage, they're fun to make and always good eating. Somewhere I have a friend's recipe for Sardinian sheep cheese and potato agnolotti (with a little bit of lightly browned onion) that I need to make again.

This week's pasta is lamb ragu, using the shoulder I bought at the market this weekend. The various northern Italian ragus are all pretty similar in their fabrication (odori/mirepoix, the featured meat, a little tomato, some red wine, and broth simmered together for few hours), where the meat (wild boar, squab, duck, lamb, rabbit or hare, etc), the herbs, the finish (add the liver at the last minute or not, include the meat or not), and the pasta (various shapes of regular, cocoa, ricotta, or chestnut pastas) provide the variation. I could eat them just about every day, which is good, because I have enough lamb for 4 nights' worth.

Last night was chestnut pasta, which though good, played up the sweetness of the lamb a little more than I'd like. It'd be better with goat, probably. A couple years ago I had a cocoa pasta with a cinghiale (the local wild boar) and black olive ragu at the tavernetta in Campiglia Marittima, which was stunning. The cocoa added a little bitterness to the pasta, really highlighting the flavors in the boar, yet didn't taste at all of chocolate. Mark Vetri's cookbook has a recipe for a cocoa pasta, which he serves at his excellent restaurant in Philly, so I decided to give it a try. Can you tell which of the pictures above is the chestnut pasta and which is the cocoa?

I have to believe the recipe is erroneous in its proportions, because there was way, way too much chocolatey flavor in the pasta, which was not a good thing, unless you're about 8 years old and hate lamb. Admittedly, I didn't follow his recipe exactly-- though 9 egg yolks for a pound of pasta produces a silky pasta that's fine for a high-end restaurant meal, it's too expensive and decadent for every day life. Even so, I can't believe that would significantly diminish the intensity of the chocolate-- seems like one slipped through the recipe testing. Anyway, I'll have to fiddle with the proportions to try to get it right for a future effort. For tomorrow, though, I think I'll make picci, a Siena classic, instead.

A day at work

In the morning I leave the apartment. I work in La Defense, and take the RER train and Metro to get there.

I walk to the train station. (Note the Velib bikes in the foreground.)

The Metro is very crowded.

The train station in La Defense is very crowded. 30,000 people work in La Defense, and it seems they all take mass transit to get there.

The armies of workers going to their jobs.

The Grande Arche is the main attraction in La Defense.

Looking the other direction in the plaza, you can (sort of) see l'Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile.

This is the building in which I work: Coeur Defense, Tour A.

At the end of the day, the armies march in the opposite direction, to the train station.

And soon I am home, with an excellent dinner to look forward to.

15 March 2009

Artichoke risotto

In the last year, Sunday in our house has become risotto night. Creamy risotto is a great comfort food, and it's infinitely adaptable to the seasons and almost all flavors, so we never get tired of it. Each week I make something up, sometimes getting it right (lemon and arugula, butternut squash, wild mushroom and foie gras, or asparagus) sometimes not so much (charred brussels sprouts-- I still think it can work, it just needs tweaking). Tonight was artichoke, one of Karen's favorite ingredients. We got a great small variety at the market yesterday that had wonderful flavor and were tender enough that I could have made a salad with them raw.

While eating, we watched the men's relay world championship biathlon from Canada on Eurosport. What a great sport. The at-the-limit aerobic activity with precision shooting in between is really cool, and when you add in the intense mental aspect with the closest competitors being right next to each other in the stressful shooting, and it just doesn't get any more exciting or unpredictable. This relay was another thriller, with several clutch and choke moments out there. I won't reveal who won, but let's just say that there are some happy Windhs in the homeland. They need to make it a winter triathlon, though, by adding ski jumping into it, somehow. Now that'd be entertainment.

Sat night dinner

We did our shopping yesterday morning at the marché du President Wilson, a several block long outdoor market a few blocks away from the apt open Weds and Sats (more on the marchés to come). We came home with the key ingredients (pictured) for dinners for the week.

Last night we had an exceptionally fresh merlan brillant (a whiting, or a fish of the same family as cod and haddock), which I scaled and filleted and pan seared, serving over sauteed fresh morrel mushrooms and an intensely emerald green coulis of watercress. I love the combination of fish and mushrooms, a surf-and-turf of a sort, and the cresson was the perfect accompaniment both for flavor and visual interest. I wish I'd thought to take a picture.

Though it was especially satisfying to have had good fish at home (we've never found a reliable source of truly fresh fish in Philly), there were 2 minor setbacks last night. First, I learned that most of my pots I brought from home don't work on our brand-new induction cook top. I guess I wasn't really paying attention when Madame C. explained she'd be replacing the cooktop that was there when we saw the apartment in Feb, so the induction part didn't sink in. If I'd realized, I'd have brought more of our cast- and enameled iron and less of my heavy aluminum. D'oh. Second, while cleaning up after dinner we accidentally dumped the stock I made from the fish carcass for a future seafood risotto down the drain. Double d'oh. Guess I'll just have to go out and buy more fish. I'm hoping to find skate sometime in the near future.