Wednesday, September 19, 2012

France, Day 6, 8/27/2012

Our room is amazing:

A marble fireplace.

A bedside table with a marble top, and Lindsay's feet.

For lunch, we go back to the only place in town for a buckwheat crêpes with melted cheese for Lindsay, and with sausage for Toby. Lindsay also gets a sweet crêpe, and I get an okay fruit salad.

The clouds clear and we go to the beach (not the nude one from yesterday—there's a line of rocks that marks the start of clothes). It's a beautiful day, and we sit in the sun reading and then brave the cold English channel.

We have a plan for the evening: we'll walk four kilometers to Saint-Coulomb in the afternoon, sit in a cafe until dinner, go to a restaurant, and then take a taxi back to la Guimorais. But when we get to Saint-Coulomb, we find out that it only has one restaurant, which is closed on Monday! (Saint-Coulomb is nicer than this would make you think. It has many pretty stone buildings; a bakery; several butchers, one of whom was also selling prepared food that looked good; and a "municipal restaurant," open only for lunch. Further inspection revealed that the municipal restaurant was attached to the elementary school, and presumably makes lunch for the kids. Wouldn't it be nice if school lunches were available to the general public and worth buying in your town?)

So, we walk all the way back to la Guimorais and beyond to the shore, where a restaurant called la Perle Noire serves tourists. It's pretentious—the menu has items like "un caprice de foie gras" and "une trilogie d'agneau"—but it's not so bad, and it has a pretty view. Our waiter is young and very nice, and he fits the cliché of bumbling waiter. When he delivers our bottle of cider, he can't get the cork out. After much effort, it pops off and lands on me. He brings us a basket of bread with a big flourish, only to snatch it away when he realizes that he meant it for the next table over. I watch him carry off a tray of empty bottles from another table while making jerking motions in fear of a bee and knocking over the bottles. All of his mistakes are harmless and only make us happier. Lindsay gets mussels in curry, and I get a hamburger, which is pink and juicy in the middle. We stop at our old friend the crêperie on our way back, where I get a scoop of salted butter caramel ice cream and Lindsay of currant sorbet.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

France, Day 5, 8/26/2012

Today is our day of epic hiking. The coast and the weather are beautiful, and we make it to the Pointe de Grouin after three hours. We are rewarded with our first glimpse of water outside the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Us with the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel in the background.

Around the Pointe de Grouin

A fortified island off the coast

After another 45 minutes, we come to a beach where we sit and devour our lunch: some sliced salami, from a log whose diameter is big enough that meat along the exterior is much chewier than in the interior; two kinds of Breton cheese; a can of sardines in extra virgin olive oil with aromatic vegetables; bread; a green pepper; and a packaged madeleine that our bed and breakfast's proprietor gave us. We eat and eat, read for a while, and finally we get up and hike. I don't even feel a little bit full.

Then we hike for another three and a half hours. When we're almost there, we lose the trail! It's never marked well around beaches. This beach is nude, as we discover peering down from the cliffs above it, so maybe the maintainers of the trail were distracted. We're both exhausted—the hike isn't cardiovascularly taxing, but our joints and tendons were not prepared for this—but I go ahead without my backpack and find a blaze. We were walking the right way the whole time. I go back and happily tell Lindsay, and we walk on into la Guimorais, a tiny town of stone buildings. We find our bed and breakfast and collapse there.

There's only one restaurant in la Guimorais, and we're not willing to walk anywhere, so we go there. We start with kirs (white wine with crème de cassis), which come with a little tray of peanuts. I get a steak with fries and a salad. Lindsay gets a mushroom galette (buckwheat crêpe), and a ham omelette with fries and a salad, to the surprise of the waitress (we were very hungry!). We also get a little carafe of cider. Nothing is really good except for the galette, but bad in France is much better than bad in the U.S., and everyone at the restaurant is incredibly nice to us, and we're so exhausted and hungry that we just have a great time. We finish all of our food and get dessert: a crêpe with apricot jam for Lindsay and a scoop of coffee ice cream and of "antillaise" ice cream for me. I got the second scoop to figure out what it was. As I discovered, it's rum raisin.

Monday, September 10, 2012

France, Day 4, 8/25/2012

In the morning we walk around the part of Cancale away from the shore. There's not much there besides houses, but we find this cemetery:

For lunch, we sit in the grass eating bread (a baguette au levain) and our remaining cheese. We also have celery root rémoulade and mushrooms à la Grecque, little button mushrooms in a vinegary pureed tomato sauce with onions and parsley. The rémoulade, made with mayonnaise, wasn't as good as Julia Child's vinaigrette-based recipe, but the mushrooms were tasty. We also have terrific reine claude plums (which I learn now are greengage plums in English). They have green flesh and a soft, creamy texture.

Then it's on to an oyster facility. (Lindsay and I have always enjoyed shellfish tourism.) Here we go on a tour (in English) and learn how oysters are farmed. The native flat oyster was originally so plentiful that people got all they wanted just by picking them up at low tide. Then, they started trawling the ocean floor for them. By the 18th century, they were starting to run low, and no one could figure out how to farm them. People eventually managed to farm a Portuguese variety of oyster, all of which died in a blight in 1962. Now, they farm a Japanese variety. The original flat oysters are still around and are now farmed, but they cost twice as much since it's harder to do. I would have liked to try these, but you can only get them in cold months because so many of them die out of the water if it's warm. The tour is fun. The only other people on it are a family from Hong Kong. The father is a real oyster aficionado, asking the tour guide's opinion on how Breton oysters stack up against the ones from Normandy, Japan, and both coasts of the U.S.

We sit down again at our cafe on the main square around the church in Cancale in the late afternoon. We are really becoming accustomed to this afternoon break. This time, I get a Breton dark beer called Telenn Du (yes, the French make beer!) and Lindsay gets a Perrier. We're sitting outside with our drinks when it suddenly starts raining hard, and everyone runs inside. Then it stopped and got sunny, and then it rained for another few minutes.

Toby with his Breton beer.

For dinner, we've made a reservation at Au Jardin du Bourg, whose niche is to be the restaurant that doesn't just serve piles of seafood by the seashore. For 12.50 euros, I have terrine de campagne (a coarse paté served with cornichons), a cassoulette of fish baked with vegetables and cream, and a chocolate and pear tarte. Lindsay has a salad with lettuce and a ham and chevre toast, steak, and chocolate mousse. Everything is good, especially the juicy, flavorful, chewy steak. I get a digestif of Calvados, which I wanted to try because I was planning to bring some home. [I ended up bringing home something slightly different, though.] The restaurant gives us free tiny glasses of amaretto, and we go home very happy.

Au Jardin du Bourg
6 Rue Duquesne
35260 Cancale

France, Day 3, 8/24/2012

Our bed and breakfast, pictured below, is run by an elderly couple who speak no English, are very nice, and serve a giant breakfast. It's the same as everywhere else—croissants, bread, butter, jam, coffee—but they're perfect specimens of their kind (except for the coffee, which is never all that great here).

Today's hike to Cancale is very nice, through farms and cliffs. It's short, so we have lunch there instead of picnicking. We go to a crêperie called La Cancalaise. Lindsay gets an egg, cheese, and smoked ham galette (buckwheat crêpe). They cook the egg sunny side up on top of the crêpe, and the yolk works as a sauce. For the second time in two years, I accidentally order andouille, a sausage made from pork intestines. It's in a galette with apple sauce, which tames it somewhat. I still don't really like it, but I enjoy it a lot more than I did last year. Maybe I'm developing a taste for it? Lindsay says it tastes like a barn, which is a great description. We also get dessert crêpes, which are not made from buckwheat. Mine has chocolate sauce, and Lindsay's has apple compote and is flambéed in Calvados. Delicious.

After we walk around Cancale, we sit in a café writing postcards. I get a Perrier, Lindsay a Kir Breton, which is a little flute of cider with strawberry liquor. It's bubbly, light, and good, just a little bit sweet.

For dinner we go to Au Pied d'Cheval, another place owned by an oyster producer. We get a dozen oysters and a half-bottle of Muscadet. As we're eating them, cutting them apart from the shell and leaving a disc of connective tissue behind, a man (the owner?) approaches the table. He takes a butter knife, picks up a discarded shell off our platter, scrapes off the disc of connective tissue, and feeds it to Lindsay, saying "c'est très bon!" He's right: it tastes like an oyster but doesn't squish like one.

After the oysters, we have whelks, little pink shrimp, and langoustines with mayonnaise. All of them are good, the shrimp exceptionally so. We enjoy everything, though we realize that we haven't had a vegetable in two days and resolve to have dinner tomorrow somewhere that serves more than a pile of seafood.

Cancale from a distance.

Crêperie la Cancalaise
3 Rue de la Vallée Porcon
35260 Cancale

Au Pied d'Cheval
10 Quai Gambetta
35260 Cancale

Saturday, September 08, 2012

France, Day 2, 8/23/2012

At 8:30, we have breakfast: coffee with milk, bread, jam, butter, and croissants. Then we walk into town. Lindsay wishes we had a fork and a knife for lunch. I agree but have no idea where to get them. Then we realize that we're standing in front of a kitchen supply store. Armed with utensils, we go to the next store over and buy two local cheeses: a wrinkled round disc of goat cheese, and a squishy cow's milk cheese.

We have a hard time finding the GR34, the trail that will take us to all the other towns. A woman sees us looking confused and asks if we need help. She speaks impeccable English and leads us to the trail, chatting the whole way. Then we walk towards Mont-Dol, a little hill with a flat top.

Toby in front of Mont-Dol.

The view from Mont-Dol.

We eat lunch in the town of Hirel, after hiking for two hours. Both cheeses are great. The goat cheese has three layers: a dry, wrinkled exterior, a thin layer of rich goo, and a chalky center. It has a grassy flavor, and its aftertaste weirdly reminds me of peanut butter. We also eat a delicious can of sardines in tomato sauce.

The cow's milk cheese and our sardines.

The hike is exhausting but not too painful. After we collapse in our room in tiny Saint-Benoît-des-Ondes, we go out to sit outside in a bar drinking Perrier.

For dinner, we go to a restaurant we've had our eye on since passing it on our hike. It's the store/restaurant of an oyster farm. We have a dozen oysters, mussels with fries, and a bottle of Breton cider. The only thing on the menu besides seafood is the fries. They're also the only thing we have that isn't great, perhaps not by coincidence. Our mussels don't come with forks. From watching other people, we figure out that we should use a empty mussel shells as tongs to pick out mussels and carry them to our mouths.

The cider is delicious. It comes in a 750 ml bottle and is only 4.5% alcohol. It's dry, but not completely so, and it still resembles juice. It's quite fizzy with a light but interesting flavor.

France, Day 1, 8/22/2012

The first half of the day, in Paris, is organized around buying bathing suits, which we forgot to bring. At the fancy department store le Bon Marché, we see some nice women's suits, which turn out to cost 320 euros. We end up buying suits at Monoprix, which feels like a French version of Target.

For lunch, we stop at a satisfactory if forgettable brasserie next to the Jardin du Luxembourg. Lindsay gets a croque monsieur (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, to everyone who didn't take high school French). I get a Niçoise salad, which has lettuce, string beans, roasted peppers, potatoes, rice, tuna, and anchovies and comes with little jars of olive oil and lemon juice. We trade halfway through. The croque monsieur is nothing great, even when we dose it with the excellent mustard on our table, but the salad's not bad.

We take a TGV (a train of great speed) to Rennes. The train lives up to its name (unlike last time). When the train goes next to a highway, we can see that we're moving much faster than the cars. I read and have to stop when I can't keep my eyes open anymore. I get a little cup of espresso (which comes with a tiny stick of Lindt chocolate!).

In Rennes, we transfer to a train which takes us to Dol-de-Bretagne. We walk around its huge cathedral and check out the rest of the town.

A window in the cathedral in Dol-de-Bretagne

Then, we take a long walk on farm dirt roads to avoid walking along the side of a fast road, until we come to our guesthouse, La Bégaudière.

La Bégaudière, just outside of Dol-de-Bretagne

I feel much better after a shower and a few glasses of water. It's time for our guesthouse's communal dinner, which starts with a Kir (a small glass of white wine with crème de cassis). A middle-aged French couple joins us. We move to the dinner table. Our host Catherine brings the four of us an enormous bowl of mussels, a basket of bread, and a slab of butter sprinkled with sea salt. The mussels were farmed in the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel, just north of us, and are delicious, briny and flavorful but not fishy. They were cooked with white wine, shallots, and parsley. The butter with the bread is the best butter I've ever had. Even though it was a huge bowl of mussels, the four of us finish it off and look forward to dessert.

When Catherine returns, she looks taken aback. Then she brings us our next course: thick, small meaty rounds of monkfish in sauce Armoricaine, a thick pureed sauce made from shallots, tomatoes, and cognac. The fish is smoky, flavored with lardons. It's served with rice with short pieces of vermicelli pasta in it (weird but perfectly good), and a zucchini gratin. Since zucchini doesn't have much taste and falls apart when cooked, this is like cream and butter given body, with a delicious browned crust. We manage to convey to the French couple that we thought the mussels were the whole meal, and they laugh and say they did too. We all manage to eat a little bit more, and we take more from the pitcher of pleasant red wine served with the meal. The four of us even eat little bowls of chocolate mousse, and Lindsay and I have cups of verveine tea.

As the meal goes on, we talk more and more to the other couple in our broken French, aided by a dictionary that Catherine brought us. They're on vacation before their son's wedding. They ask us what we do for a living, and then the man tells us proudly that he's a patissier. We tell him about the wedding cakes we had made the week before. Finally, we go off to sleep for a long time.

Friday, September 07, 2012

France, Day 0, 8/21/2012

The day begins with a disorganized flight to Washington, D.C., and it ends with a more pleasant flight to Paris. But the more interesting thing is Lindsay's new haircut, which she got the day before:

Lindsay's new haircut, front view

Lindsay's new haircut, side view