96: Mulling around in Mulhouse, France

He was a big Frenchman in a wrinkled militia-styled jacket, shaved head and stubble-shadowed jaw. As we threaded through the medieval square’s cafe’s tables, he blocked David’s way, smiled and said something in French.

Dave tried to turn the rugged and somewhat aggressive panhandler away, but before things could get worse, and by worse I mean us not getting a table, I jumped in and told the man we prefer to sit in the sun.

Our French maitre'd did not look so scary once he took off his scrappy jacket and shed the shades, but he still has a bar-bouncer physique. We dared not leave any food on our plate, lest we insult him or his establishment's chefs.

This is the problem with not speaking the local language – all a person has to draw on are appearances and my beloved thought the man was about to demand his wallet, although in a very engaging and musical way because after all, this was France, the land that we cannot stop loving no matter how many times it offends our sensibilities.

The rough-cut maitre’d somehow blended coquettish charm with a bullish demeanor. Don’t ask me how. It is a mystery. After delivering us to our table au soleil, we watched him marshall the area with a militaristic machismo. When a motorcyclist parked his bike in a spot deemed inappropriate, the maitre’d took on the appearance of a gendarme. It was impressive.

The funny thing in France is that they all seem to have a good understanding of English, but they refuse to speak it. And while they are famous for being snotty on this point, our experience is that they are quite gracious. In fact, the only place where the French have gotten uppity with me over language is in Canada, which is ironic given what an old-French pioneering family I come from.

But enough rambling. Our Swiss watchmaking town is only 100 km away from France, so given that by this time next year we will be 100 km away from Vancouver or Chemainus, we decided to take the opportunity to visit the French.

Mulhouse's Rothus Museum has some cool Neolithic skeletal stuff in it (some in orange ochre soil, excavated from local tombs). Small towns in France and Switzerland all seem to have their own tiny museums with really amazing collections, the likes of which would be unthinkable in comparably sized Canadian cities. How do the Europeans do it?

Mulhouse is famous for its many museums, some of which focus on specialties that would never occur to anyone else as collectible items of interest. There are museums for textiles, railroads, cars, electricity (yes, electricity), art, artifacts, history and that killer of all museums, a museum of wallpaper. It’s a pity that I loathe museums with such intensity that my entire objective in visiting Mulhouse was to avoid all of them.

It was not possible. We accidentally stumbled into one that appeared to be a tourist office-combination-hotel in Mulhouse’s central square. Once inside, the suave French smiled and charmed us into visiting their museum in the upper stories of the building, which happened to have the unbeatable attraction of free admission.

It turned out to be a lovely place to spend 30 minutes, which is the outside limit of my attention span. As we asked for directions out of the building, a burly French guide took us to another room where he opened the window and pointed the way to the Musee’ des Beaux Arts, extracting from us a promise to visit there next, but which we never did.

I feel bad about that, but if we did not make the promise, we ran the risk of insulting our French hosts, and yet, if we kept the promise, I might have dunked my head in a bucket of water just to avoid the prospect of more of my life lost to museum-trolling.

Tomorrow: More on Mulhouse and the wonders of France’s relationship with sugar, butter and chocolate

Dave reckons medieval key chains must have required a lot of muscle.

 

 

 

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Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

Sweet treats and good rib-sticking eats all in one shopping spot at French bakeries and patisseries.

This post dating back to the Easter weekend 2011 repeatedly floats to the top of this blog’s hits (scroll down).

Staring at the text in the file listings, it made no sense to me, but now that I’ve opened the post and seen that it comes with a photo of a lovely pastry display case on top, the world has once again fallen into its correct order.

In the meantime, our little plateau in Switzerland is experiencing the spring-like joys of the Canadian prairies, that is to say the sidewalks are ankle-deep in grey ice and slush.

Yesterday, I met another writer for the literary version of a jam session, and uncharacteristically, the Swiss railway system failed, so she had to complete the last part of her journey by bus. That was okay, until she landed in our little slush-ville.

As it happens, both she and I are from Winnipeg, although we met here, not there.

This is another oddity of Winnipeggers – they/we are everywhere, and strangely, we all recognize one another. I think it’s because we smile so much.

Why do we smile? Because we’re not in Winnipeg, the hometown everyone loves to hate but will die defending.

And so, the two of us pretended the weather was just fine, even though we both had slipped into some decline by the time we connected at the train station with our moppy hair and weather-mashed countenances.

We entered into the Women of Winnipeg pact, which is that it was a ‘given’ that we both had started our day with fabulous hair and in the most beautiful of states, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. She shared that while waiting for the bus she had met another Winnipegger. Neither of us is surprised by this.

Then we marched through the slushy streets, pushing against the wind and pelting snow, feeling the slush ride up our pant legs and ooze ice particles into our shoes. Actually, I’m speaking for myself here, but I have to assume she was experiencing similar discomfort, but, of course she did not complain because she is from … Winnipeg, and by all bio-bred Winnipeg-weather standards, this was still a fine day weather-wise, although a little too warm for cross-country skiing. Pity. If only the temperature had dropped another eight degrees, it would have been a perfect day.

By the time we arrived at Starbucks, my jeans were soaked up to my knees and I couldn’t feel my ankles.  We were both in high spirits, and not just because of our proximity to caffeinated products and cheesecake, but because there’s nothing like an ice-dousing to make a prairie gal feel alive, or at least so numb that the absence of pain makes us feel alive.

It took me about six  hours to bring my core body temperature back up to normal. I should point out that in Winnipeg, it would have taken me six days.

But enough of that. Here is one of Hobonotes’ top five postings – actually, it is usually in third spot, but I just can’t believe it.

Dining in Paris: Can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

The first question is why would you want to eat a lamb’s kidney anyway? Gross.  That aside, French food enjoys a reputation that tops all others, but do they deserve it?

It’s easy to trot into France’s finest restaurants and emerge satisfied that the nation’s cuisine is all that is claimed. But what about those of us who blanche at $75 lunches? What is French food like for the mid-to-low range diner? Does Paris even have a mid-to-low-range dining echelon?

We-the-cheap conducted an in-depth 48-hour study on this topic. Here is what we found.

Patisseries/boulangeries, that is, combination pastry and bakery shops, are great sources for not-so-expensive, but still delicious, day-time meals, and these shops are everywhere.

Aux Armes de Niel, the  boulangerie (photo above)  at the corner down from our hotel sold soup-bowl-sized take-out quiches and other sustaining  foods (mini-pizzas, although I don’t know if they called them that) for under $10 each.  The alternative was our hotel breakfast at 20 Euros, that is,  over $30 Cdn. each. No thanks.

400-year-old French cafe. No one was there. We're not saying this suggests that its age corresponded to the length of time customers waited for a meal, but you have to wonder.

It also sold fabulous overfilled cream pastries, if such can be said to be truly over-filled. After all, this is whipped cream. There’s never too much of it, so the French seem to think and, after sampling the goods, we agree.  The pastries themselves were heavenly- flakey, light, everything Pilsbury dough-boy claims, but is not. French pastry is a perfect jacket for French fillings and toppings.

If you’re deciding between French ice cream and French pastries as your guilt-food for the day, pick the pastries. The ice cream is good, but ice cream tops out at a certain point anywhere in the globe and I can prove it by producing homemade ice cream at my Ontario cottage that could stand up alongside the French’s. Note to cottage guests: But I won’t do that, because summer is the time to laze on the dock – not a good place for churning ice cream.  Note to those searching for the greatest scoop of ice cream: Head to Atlanta, Georgia. Break into any home-kitchen and demand the contents of their churn. Seriously. You will not be disappointed.

San Remo Pizzeria in Paris; artichoke, olive and pepper pizzaBut I digress.

We scoured the streets for under-$30/person fare and found a few places, such as the San Remo’s Pizzeria near the Place de Marechal Juin roundabout and Pereire metro station.  There, I had a delicious vegetarian pizza with artichokes that did not appear to have ever graced the insides of a jar.

Dave had the grilled salmon and spaghetti alla chitarra, a substantial thick spaghetti noodle cooked to just the right degree of resistance and subtly seasoned.

With a glass of the house wine and a beer, the total came to $36.90. Shocking, all the more so for having been so delicious.  The atmosphere on this Paris sidewalk cafe was great, too. The staff (probably Italians) were nowhere near as snooty as French servers’ reputation suggests.


Lovely affordable Leipzig

I was a little harried after a few hours on Germany's warp-speed highways, but my nerves would soon be settled by fabulous German/Italian cuisine.

European travel tends to have an eviscerating effect on the wallet – it can be very pricy, however, our limited journeys thus far have taught us that getting off the beaten track changes that.

In France, we choked on Paris’s restaurant prices, but in Besançon, a small French village near the Swiss border, we found the architecture stunning and the food just as good at only a smidgen of the Parisian cost. We have not seen enough of Germany to draw the same conclusion, but our three days in Leipzig suggests the trend might continue there.

Along Leipzig’s lovely cobblestoned avenues are scores of open-air cafes. It is possible that some of them served substandard food but we did not find any such establishment.My restaurant advice to anyone visiting Leipzig is this: Dive in. The food will be lovely. If you find a lousy restaurant, let me know. I don’t think you will, though.

San Remos vegetarian ravioli

I dined in the San Remo street pavilion under a towering heater and square umbrellas during a brisk windy day and didn’t feel the bite of the cold at all, so enchanting was the meal, the second-best ravioli I’ve had over the past 40 years (the best was at a Winnipeg Folklorama festival pavilion in a Grant Park arena, where scores of Italian mammas slung out homemade ravioli to die for, this was back in the mid-1970s – since then, I’ve not found any pasta that rivals it).

At San Remo (why are so many good restaurants named San Remo?) at Nikolaistrasse 1, (www.sanremo-leipzig.de), for the meagre price of 8-Euros, you get a fetching plate of vegetarian ravioli with a butter-cream sauce. The pasta’s filling suggests squash, a hint of garlic, and some kind of lentil, although the waiter informed me with his limited English that it was probably chopped carrots that offered the slight crunch.

This restaurant boasts that it won Germany’s best ice cream in 2010, although it is not clear to me what contest gave them this title. Nevertheless, more convincing was the endless line-up that formed at this restaurant’s outdoor ice cream kiosk all day long, no matter the weather. I walked past the restaurant kiosk numerous times in the days that we were there and never saw it wane. And so naturally, I tried out their ice cream for dessert, even though the generous plate of ravioli had left little room. The ice cream had a soft homemade texture and supported the “best of” boast. It was delicious.

We dropped in twice at Bitt-burger, which I think is also on Nikolaistrasse, but might be one block west. It’s famous for its beer and has a distinct Germanic look and name, but has fabulous Italian food. Give it a go. You’ll love it.

Night dining in the rain at "Barf Street" - my translation of this Germanesque-tagged avenue. It is absolutely fabulous. Do not miss this spot if you're in Leipzig.

The entire lane that is regrettably named Barfußgäßchen is packed with restaurants of many types. We had a lovely evening meal there at a place I cannot name, but you could probably safely land at any table and come away gastronomically content.

As always, watch the other patrons to see whether they have any food in front of them, or if they wear peeved expressions – we did see at least one restaurant over which the clientele were casting a foul mood, so we assumed the service would be slow there and kept our distance.

This brings me to a piece of Dave-advice on selecting a restaurant. Besides the above (checking for the demeanor of patrons, as well as making sure there are patrons to start with), he favors going to restaurants populated with middle-class middle-age-and-older clients. He said they’re old enough to not try to impress anyone, they know good food and they’re not inclined to overspend just to say that they did.  It’s a method that has worked for him so far.

Chocolate Champions

German chocolatier working at his craft.

Mercy is called for when judging chocolates, because all chocolate is good, aside from some hideous holiday-related confections that seem to be made primarily of wax and some brown food colouring poured into bunny and poultry moulds.

If you grew up in the United States or Canada, you will know of which chocolate brand I speak, but because I am a trained journalist and therefore familiar with the laws and statutes under which I could be sued, although unsuccessfully, because I know I’m dead right about this, I am not going to reveal the manufacturer who may or may not be based in Mississauga, Ontario.

So, to all the chocolate manufacturers of all nationalities who did not win my The World, Nay The Universe Best Chocolate Ever competition, don’t feel bad, and if you do feel bad, eat chocolate. It ups your serotonin levels, leading to a feeling of well-being. And while you’re feeling so good about yourself, maybe you can concoct a better chocolate recipe for the next time I’m in your country.

And the winner is: Leysieffer of Germany, with Canada a close second.

Leysieffer’s every chocolate is a revelational experience  from their champagne white chocolates to their mocha truffles and onward. It’s the sort of chocolate that can make a person rethink their life goals. They have even redeemed orange-cream chocolates, a flavour to which many chocolate-makers add too much sugar.

Leysieffer had some tough competition in the form of Canada’s Chocolat de Chocolaterie’s caramel-filled chocolates, which by themselves are better than anything Leysieffer has to offer, but when taking each chocolatier’s ‘menu’ as a whole, Leysieffer has the broadest selection, all of which are very good indeed. At Chocolat de Chocolaterie, anyone not a big fan of caramel will still come away happy with the other offerings, but not quite as much as if they had jumped on a plane and headed to Germany, or maybe just gone online and ordered some at Leysieffer’s website.

The French, whose Paris and Besançon chocolates were sampled, will also be very ticked off to learn that not only are the Germans amazing with chocolate, they also make the best croissants on the continent. Possibly, they stole a few French secrets during the Second World War, showing that the real reason Germany invaded France was not in a bid for global domination, but to grab their recipes. But let’s not mention The War.

Judging criteria included texture, taste, body and flavour mixes.

The runner-up is Canada, with Chocolat de Chocolaterie* at 703 Fort Street in Victoria, British Columbia serving the best chocolate in that nation, with their buttery caramel chocolates melting so blissfully in the mouth that it is not safe to operate a vehicle while enjoying them. Even people who do not like me become fast friends when I feed them Chocolat’s caramel-filled chocolates.

Sorry Quebec, but Chocolat de Chocolaterie is Canada’s best, after a three-decade-long, coast-to-coast taste-testing tour. Quebec can take consolation that they had the best cheesecake in Canada, found at Dunn’s Famous restaurant in Montreal. To be truthful, though, that part of the taste-testing tour took place at the beginning of the tour in 1981, so things might have changed since then. **

Switzerland is a natural home to fabulous chocolates, but testing the products of numerous independent chocolate shops in countless Swiss villages, as well as giving their top name brands a fair test (Merkur, Cailler, Lindt), nothing could be found to carry the same fine balance of sweet against cocoa on a bed of creamy fats.

Further testing of Swiss product is ongoing.

It should be said that even though Switzerland did not obliterate the Germans in this contest, Swiss chocolate is still mighty fine, and there is no question that the widening distribution of their homegrown brand, Lindt, has upped the chocolate experience of North Americans who up to recent times were making do with some rather diluted product.

I won’t name names. Remember, I am avoiding a lawsuit.***

*Canada owes its second-place finishing solely to Chocolat de Chocolaterie. Its chocolate are better than any we’ve found in Switzerland, however, Swiss chocolatiers beat all other Canadian chocolates.

**France and Quebec can still claim a moral victory, because I suspect the owner/operator of Chocolate de Chocolaterie is actually French. I don’t know this for sure.

*** In my last post, I promised to reveal a never-before realized source of unbelievable chocolate. Here it is: The Church of Jesus Christ – Latter Day Saints in the little town of Kenora, Ontario, Canada. Yes, the Mormons. They’re not just good at choral singing. This church at one time had a women’s fundraising group that produced boxes of homemade chocolates that could make a Baptist rethink their views on Mormon theology.

The things you bring back home

This is not the prettiest photo. It was taken on the sly in the grocery store where I have been scolded for photographing the goods before. This tiny container that fits in my hand cost 4.10 francs, which is way to much to pay for anything that has margarine in it.

In every international move, we have packed along some of the comforts of home, and in every move back home, we pack along some of the discovered comforts of life abroad.

In this instance, I’m bringing back a spice called Cafe de Paris, which I’m hoping is the genuine spice and herb mixture for Cafe de Paris sauce.

You might think that this is French, not Swiss, but you would be wrong about that. The Swiss, like Canadians and Americans, pride themselves on adopting the best from other countries, and that extends to names, even if the sauce was first concocted and served in Geneva. The Swiss have a knack for marketing, and they correctly detected  Cafe de Geneva would fail to rise to the elevated notes of this delicious sauce.

It is incomprehensible that France lets Switzerland get away this, especially as that while the Swiss take the French name, they give nothing back, keeping the ingredients a trade secret. This explains all those French invasions on Swiss villages back in the 1400-1600’s.

We first learned of Cafe’ de Paris sauce at a restaurant in Montreux. Recommended by the waiter, it came in a scoop nestled in a small gravy boat with my steak dinner.

Is this the transportable good stuff? My summer cottage guests will test it.

It was a pale green, not a very inspiring colour  and despite being listed on the menu as a sauce, it came in solid form.  It had the consistency of  a heavy mousse.

One nibble and I, too, believed sauce could be a solid, powder or vapour. It didn’t matter. Cafe de Paris was beyond delicious.

When I thanked the waiter and asked him what heavenly plateau of cuisine I had just ascended, he waved it away as a mash of minced parsley, butter and a little garlic. Clever waiter. He’s in on the secret, too, and was not about to share.

Several publications have claimed to unlock the secret to this sauce, but the Swiss just shake their heads and say, “Nope, not it.”

Since then, I have been in pursuit of Cafe de Paris. I have discovered a spice of that name listing 15 ingredients, some of which look like something the Swiss would make up.*

Dollops of Cafe de Paris are sold in stores in tiny egg-carton-like form, but one of their ingredients is margarine, proving that the Swiss are still being secretive. Margarine as a base is an abomination, every good cook knows this and even us poor ones are well-aware of it.

*Here are the spice ingredients. Some are easy to figure out – basil, tarragon, pepper, but a few are beyond my resources.  Help me if you can:

German: salz, paprika (ungarn), knoblauch (agypten), petersilie, basilikum, schnittlauch, estragon, zwiebein, pfeffer, liebstockel, majoran, andere krauter und gewurze, pflanzl, fett (gedampft), lauch, karotten.

French: sel, paprica (Hongrie), ail (Egypte), persil, basilic, ciboulette, estragon, oignon, poivre, liveche, marjolaine, autres herbes et epices (curse the Swiss for using this catch-all phrase), graisse veg (vaporissee), poireau, carottes.

Warning: Cafe de Paris sauce is loaded with almost 600 calories in a single serving size, which is about the size of half-an-egg. This, too, is a miracle – to pack so many calories into a dollop that can be taken in one swallow.

Lazy stroll turns into hike of horror

Saint-Pierre Church in Besançon.

Being a city of ancient origins, Besançon has history, lots of it, and not all of it so nice. The weird thing is that they choose to display that history in the middle of a children’s zoo.

Citadel entrance.

We made the uphill climb to Besançon’s Citadel – a Unesco World Heritage Site that was built between 1668 and 1688 on 11 hectares of high ground that culminates in a cliff overlooking the river Doubs.  It is a fortress of spartan stone structures and walls, standing in sharp relief against the city’s other Romanesque, Classical and Baroque architecture.

Stark architecture caps the citadel's naturally advantageous military position.

After entering the gates where we paid 9 Euros each for admission, a process that is weird in that you weave off the path into a fortress gate office where they take your money and subject you to a sales-pitch to buy guides, a history book, audio and more. I could be wrong about this, because the clerk only spoke French, but every time she pushed something at me, I asked “Combien?” and there was a number in her every response, indicating a price.

I don’t mind the sales pitch, but if they are going to have clerks rattling off at tourists, wouldn’t it be nice to have a few who can speak English? I can imagine some sad sap saying “Oui,” to every question just to be friendly and then discover he had purchased $113 worth of history books in a language he cannot read.

The fun was not over yet, as we still had to march up a hill to a second fortress gate that also pulled us through a gift shop where smiling clerks stood ready to entice us to open our wallets. But it was a hot day and our wallets were pasted to our pockets, so we were spared.

We then walked over a stone bridge that rose above a dry moat populated with baboons who were  in a screaming fever over some argument that led to a chase where the loser was forced to  scamper up the vertical walls such that we flinched instinctively, ready to flee should the baboon clear the walls, which it looked like he was about to do.

Even though the baboons terrified us (see silky-haired creatures in the lower right corner), we later saw the keeper hand-feed them.

He never did, although his proven ability to eat up vertical space told us he could easily have landed in our laps, and so we concluded there must be an electrified barrier. At least we hope so. If we open up the news one day to learn of a tourist having his hand eaten by a baboon, we will not be a bit surprised.

From there we made our way to the goat pen, but first we thought we’d stop in at “The Museum of the Resistance and Deportation,” which we thought was some kind of funny translation for something else, but it turned out it was almost exactly the correct name for the stone building, except that it should have also included the phrases, “The Rise of the Nazis,” and “Holocaust,” and “How Hitler Prepped an Entire Nation to Kill Six Million and Mutilate Many More.”

I am capitalizing every word on purpose, to emphasize how graphic this museum was, and so it should be. Wouldn’t you agree, however, that while it does belong inside a military fortress, internment camp and execution site, as the citadel is, perhaps it should not be lodged between the baboon cage and the goat pens? The children’s’ zoo aspect does nothing to prepare visitors for what lies inside the museum’s walls.

Libyans seeking signatures supporting the ousting of Gaddafi.

The museum left us mute and the rest of our tour inside the citadel was done on autopilot, without much enjoyment.

This was all after we had stumbled across a group of Libyan men, standing silent in the plaza overshadowed by Eglise Saint Pierre. They held up photos of their murdered relative’s bloodied corpses, reminding us that while Nazi atrocities had abated, new ones were ongoing at that very moment.

We were in need of emotional resuscitation, so we went to the Musee de Beaux Arts, on the grounds that anything named so cheerfully had to be good, unaware that it housed a section on Goya’s black period where he painted works depicting familial cannibalism.

And that is the essence of Europe: Awesome architecture, horrific history.

I am going to include a gallery of Besançon’s prettier parts, just in case this post leaves you in a dour state.

Click on photos to enlarge, click twice for close-ups.

If you go to Besancon, you can skip the uphill march that Dave and I made. Tour buses will ferry you uphill (in the summer season only) or you can take a car and leave it at a paid-parking site, although spaces are few. Learn more at www.citadelle.com.

We do most of our touring on Saturdays, hence we often happen upon weddings, photo shoots and receptions. We have not ever eaten at any of these weddings. Really.

Metallic directional arrows are imbedded in Besançon's sidewalks to help tourists find their way around town, however, we found this particular set pointed in the opposite direction indicated on our map. Coincidentally, it points toward the casino. Coincidence?

Besançon is one of France's undiscovered beauties.

A children's carousel in the Saint Pierre Church plaza.

If you go to Besançon, make sure to explore these unmarked gates that lead to intriguing private courtyards. Do not get arrested!

We found these scoured steps up to legal offices inside one of the courtyards. Maybe lawyers aren't so well-paid in France.

Inside a courtyard. These are hidden neighbourhoods nested inside the city streets. They surprise visitors - sometimes leading to parks, sometimes to hotels, sometimes to private fountains.

After the holocaust museum, Libyan tragedies and Goya's cannibalistic works, Dave finally finds something to smile about - a Picasso!

Eat on the street at Au Grill’on

Photo captures male diner's facial expression as he absorbs yet another insult from his haughty French waiter. He revels in the satisfaction of knowing he is paying for the best arrogance France can deliver.

Dave and I arrived in a famished state at Au Grill’on, a corner cafe that wraps around  Rue JDV Proudhon and Rue Francois Louis-Bersot in Besançon’s old quarter.

As is our custom, we first whetted our appetite by scrutinizing the menus and clientele of about 12 restaurants beforehand, deeming each one unsuitable, until we arrived at Au Grill’on too tired and hungry to care about the quality of food or service. This was France, after all, where there is no bad food, theoretically speaking.

We parked ourselves at a table at the point of the corner to enjoy a commanding view of the pedestrian-fashion show going up and down both streets.  I stepped away to discreetly take a few photos of said fashion-show and when I returned Dave was seated at a new table.

The waiter, a young man who when he first appeared wore an expression so disinterested that it took a few minutes for us to conclude he was not a loitering Dylanesque artiste, had moved Dave to another table hemmed in on one side by what appeared to be a trash bin and on the other by an ad board.

Dave, being of English stock, did not realize the waiter was asserting dominance. I, having a good measure of pre-Revolutionary French blood, appreciated the artistry woven into this insult and drew my sword, figuratively speaking.

I moved us to another table. True, it was worse than the one the waiter chose, but there was no time to quibble. Dave, seeing he was but a pawn in our power-struggle, sighed and took up his newly assigned post. I wonder if we had kept on like that for 20 minutes or so how many tables we could have made Dave sit at. I would guess at least five.  He is a very good sport.

The view from our table.

The waiter, seeing he had a rogue diner on his hands swept by our table as though we did not exist, a sort of shot-across-the-bow move, then returned to our table and assumed a bored posture – his weight thrown to one side, shoulders slack, chest cratered inward and head slightly tilted as though falling asleep. I managed a few French words at which his eyes flickered with hostility.

Some say that everyone under 25 in Europe has a working knowledge of English, but the waiter gave no recognition of our English and even less of our French. We would have done just as well in Hungarian, even though neither of us speak it.

The waiter communicated in one-syllable words so low that they could have signaled a digestive complaint, but he toyed with our hopes by allowing a slight intonation of language into his grunts. He was a good-looking kid, but he somehow transformed his eyelids into shadowy hoods and his lip curled slightly upward while the rest of his facial features took on a gargoyle-like profile.

The view on the other side of the street - sure the avenue is jammed with tables and pedestrians, but why not drive a sports car through it? We've seen this in Switzerland and France - owning a sports car is apparently a license to drive anywhere, any time, any way at all.

You have to hand it to the boy. He should not be in some provincial backwater, but instead be waiting on tables in Paris where he could contribute to France’s international reputation for waiter-haughtiness.  We were delighted to finally get our money’s worth in cuisine culture.

Even though we communicated our order caveman-style, that is,  by pointing on the menu, le garcon brought me something somewhat different – and more expensive – than what I had ordered. He correctly detected Dave’s likability and first brought him his exact order – chicken breast, which came sans bone and skin in a  mallet-flattened filet along with a square of delicious scalloped potato.

Hopefully no waiter-spit is in here. This tasted a lot better than it looked, although I could not detect any garlic. The waiter must have reported my misdemeanors to the chef!

Then he brought my steak, which I had ordered, topped with what appeared to be giant raisins, which I had not ordered. I would have put up a fight about this, but I am still waiting for the day that a European waiter brings me the correct order, so I just picked up my knife and started hacking at it only to see my plate transform into a murder scene, complete with red blood pouring out into the beige-coloured sauce (a nice complementary colour scheme, by the way).

The waiter was winning.

I sent the plate back to the kitchen where for all I know the entire staff gathered around to spit on it.

When the steak returned, it was still rare, but it no longer flinched under the fork. It was perfectly tender, a good piece of meat, and although a little lacking in the usual hint of garlic for which French chefs are famous, it still was delicious.

The waiter, as is almost always the case with European waiters, had exacted his revenge by making sure I did not escape the region without dining on the local delicacy, morilles mushrooms, which is the name for the raisin-like globules atop the steak. It is hard to hate a waiter so wise.

The morilles added nearly 10 dollars (Cd) to the price, but were worth the freaky experience of having their raisin-ribbed surface tickle the inside of my mouth. Did I say it was freaky? It’s worth saying twice.

Sadly, their flavour is weak as compared to more common mushroom varieties.

Despite our waiter’s lofty ways, he was very quick with bringing the food, and I’m fairly certain he did not spit in it, although with all that sauce and crumpled morilles, who can say for sure?

Out of 10, with 10 being the top:

Service: 4

Cultural service experience: 10

Food:  Chicken:  10  Steak: 8

Price: $12 for the chicken, $24 for the steak.

Ambiance:  8

Besancon Bits

12th Century portion of Besançon's Cathedral Saint Jean. At least, that's what the guide inside the church said.

As is our custom on most of our travels, we made our first stop at Besançon’s tourist office so Dave could pose by it with a frustrated expression at finding yet another French tourist office closed on a weekend. They say retired couples should find a hobby they can do together and this is ours.

Dave expresses his opinion of France's tourism bureau, which laughingly seems to be closed just when visitors are most likely to show up. To be fair - this office was open the following day.

Then we made our way across the bridge to Besançon’s Ancienne Ville, an old-town that dates back to the 16th century, and even older is Besançon’s outstanding St. Jean Cathedral, parts of which herald from the 12th century.

Despite the fact that Besançon’s national identity eddied about in the streams of conquest (last post), it appears that its conquerors did more to build it up than to tear it down, and so for a small city, it has the pricy ambience of a large one. Some writers have described it as a miniature version of Paris, and rightly so.

Like Paris, it has broad pedestrian avenues flanked by stone buildings ornamented with elegant woven wrought iron balconies. Unlike Paris, its old town is impoverished when it comes to trees.

The stone streets are just that – horizontally laid stone blocks trimmed with the vertical stone of the buildings. On our first walkabout in the evening, it felt barren, but when we returned Saturday morning, the French compensated for the shortage of shrubs by filling the street with colourful bedecked citizens, caravans of cafe umbrellas and quirky street

Besançon's Revolutionary Square, which is a lot bigger than it looks in this photo.

vendors. This is not to say the city didn’t have greenery – it had plenty, just not in the old quarter.

Unlike Paris, Besançon does not strip visitors down to the last penny.  Visitors can sip on an espresso at a sidewalk cafe in the town’s broad Revolutionary Square for only 1.50 Euros. We almost fell off our chairs when we saw the bill.

And for those on a budget, a cheap lunch can be had at Besançon’s “Subway” sandwich restaurant – and before you turn up your  nose at eating at an international food chain, the French do things with bread even in a franchise operation  that seem impossible in North America. We handed over 12 Euros for a fresh lunch for two, thus allowing us to splurge on our supper bill.  Whether the supper was worth it, I will tell tomorrow.

A church in Besançon. Wouldn't it be nice if I knew its name?

Knocking on Victor Hugo's door - or at least, the door to the apartment building where he was born on February 6, 1802. See how I hang my head? It is from years of knocking on doors as a reporter, steeling myself for abuse. Let's face it, I deserved it.

Besancon: French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Roman, Hungarian, then French town.

You don't expect to see an elaborate Egyptian display at a small French city with a population of about 120,000, but the French are known for their elegance, so why not?

A four-day weekend, such as we have just had, is a great time to take off to places further afield, but we did not do that.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we have not fully adjusted to the vigour that Europeans apply to their “mini-breaks.”

In other words, by the time we got down to booking train tickets and hotels, there was not a seat or a bed available. We could not have gotten onto a train to Vienna unless we were prepared to ride Tom-Cruise-style, that is, on the top, while engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a John Voight look-alike.

We should have remembered this from our time in Madrid, when we discovered that six-hour, two-hundred mile traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city over long weekends was a normal event.

And so we satisfied ourself with shorter jaunts – the earlier trip to Neuchatel being the first. That turned out exceedingly well, and so we braved the French border once again (you may remember our last venture into France started with getting electronically kicked out of three hotels, before landing in an expensive Waldorf).

We headed to Besançon, an ancient town settled by Gauls in the Bronze Age (1500 BC) in the oxbow of the river Doubs, and, because its location presents such a strong military advantage, Julius Caesar’s boys naturally showed up and said, “We’ll take that.” Which they did.

We think of modern Europe’s borders are being permanently marked with indelible ink, but the Europeans did not treat it that way.

Besançon was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then was accorded independence, which is a way of saying no military power would defend it, and so it subsequently came under the Habsburgs (through marriage, not war, although some would say the two are the same).

Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology with origins dating back to 1694, although this building, a former grain hall, only dates back to the 1800s. In the 1960s its interior was completely refurbished by Louis Miguel, a man who is forever doomed to only be addressed as "a student of Le Corbusier." He deserves better. The interior is spectacular. Did I mention this town has only 120,000 inhabitants? And yet they somehow pulled this off. We mock the French, but we have to hand it to them. They have culture.

That means the Austrians – or was it the Hungarians – were in charge, and then, in some kind of closet-cleaning decluttering exercise, they handed it over to Philip II, King of Spain.

Spain is nowhere near Besançon, and as soon as the Spanish realized the inconvenience of managing such a far-flung district, they tried to hand it back to the Austrians via marriage, but the Austrians were not to be fooled for long and less than a hundred years later, the Spanish discovered Besançon had somehow crawled its way back into their closets.

That was in 1667, but whether it was French, Spanish, German, Prussian, Hungarian, Austrian or just plain Catholic was not decided yet,  because French monarch Louis XIV fancied Besançon and claimed it, but then lost interest and within months ‘forgot’ it on Spain’s doorstep.

It boomeranged back to the French, then in 1814 the Austrians had a change of heart and bombarded the city. Finally, the Germans, probably sick of all the back-and-forth, grabbed it, but finally it ended up back in French hands after the Nazis were routed out, but not before executing 100 French resistance fighters there.

What all this leads to is that Besançon has a fascinating museum with great archaeological finds, including an intact Roman soldier’s helmet and a second-century BC Neptune mosaic. The museum is 100 years older than the Louvre, and is a good place to see the works of Matisse, Goya, Picasso, as well as an Egyptian mummy display.

Egyptian stone works are right out in the open, and I couldn’t resist drawing my hands along the pharaoh profiles, touching the same granite and sandstone as the long-ago artisans, which I really should not have done, at least that’s what the museum security detail told me, but the rebuke was brief, as though the French are resigned to their collection of sculptures and hieroglyphics getting pawed by Americans.

Which I am not. I am Canadian, but why tell the French that when they are so happy to think otherwise?

Say Cheeeese

The source of so much goodness: Cheese, fondue, ice cream, taco fillings ...

I’ve been rough on Swiss cuisine, writing some very nasty things about their chocolate, their cheeses, their ice creams, their relaxed attitude toward refrigeration. Today, Switzerland fought back.

Well, at least one block of cheese bought at a Swiss store fought back by stumbling out of the refrigerator while I was going in for the strawberries, nearly striking my leg, but it was a soft cheese, so not much harm could have been done. Seeing as it volunteered, I decided to take a slice, and steeled myself for the usual olfactory horrors to unfold when the plastic wrapping came off.

This did not occur. The cheese was almost odor-free, and even as I cut into it, I could tell this was going to be different. It did not embrace the blade as would a gooey Brie; neither did it fight back in the way of a stiff cheddar. It was in the middle, resisting a little, with the edges crumbling away in niblets, but still cutting rather clean.

The taste was mindful of butter and cream, which turned out to be correct as the cheese is 75 per cent fat, a content earned by the addition of extra-heavy cream during processing. You might be able to find a chunk in North America – it’s called St. Andre’s and it is made in France.

Which means that I just wrote something nice about French cheese, as opposed to Swiss cuisine, the latter of which being where I was going in the first place. But to be fair, it was purchased in a Swiss store, so that has to count for something.

The Swiss are big on beef, cheese, chocolate, fondue, muesli, quiche and tarts. I love all of these. They also steal a lot of ideas from Italy and France, whose foods I love, and from Germany, whose foods, their sausages in particular, I do not love so much. Actually, I really dislike those fat-chocked sausages. And yet, I know so many great Mennonite cooks – they must be of Russian extraction.

But to get back to the Swiss: Their strawberries are now in full season, which means the prices are dropping while the quality is rising. They are fabulous. Fabulous Swiss strawberries. See,  I can say nice things about Swiss food.

And I did say nice things about Movenpick ice cream, although that was before I sampled their cashew cinnamon ice cream, which had a lot of cinnamon and not so much cashew. It didn’t help that the cinnamon was augmented by some unknown spice, possibly curry, that made the whole experience a deeply moving one of disappointment; this especially after trying their chocolate ice cream, which was divine.

You may remember I had nothing nice to say about Polarfuchs ice cream, but I’m still looking to try their fresh strawberry flavour, which may have redemptive qualities. Nevertheless,  I can’t find it anywhere, even though there are strawberries everywhere at the moment.

Clearly, I have mixed feelings about Swiss food. This is where many food writers would make a joke about having to keep testing more food so as to more fully comprehend the breadth of the national cuisine.

I can’t joke about it, because I can’t promise it. I approach every plate with trepidation.

We had an unpleasant experience with Swiss ground beef early on, and it took me seven weeks to brave it again. The good news is that the second attempt was greatly improved, leading me to believe that the first clump of ground beef I cooked was on the edge of spoiling, which returns us to my first paragraph and my biggest beef with Europeans, and that is their lack of regard for refrigeration.

In the meantime, I just learned the St. Andre’s cheese in my refrigerator is highly perishable, so should be eaten as soon as possible. That, I am going to do.

Dining on the Champs

Our exceedingly snotty French waiter at the Cafe de Musee, who may have been right to hold the butter on my croissant order.

Paris’s Champs Elysees, home of Louis Vuitton, Sepphora and Swarovski flagship stores, is an avenue that prides itself on excising as much capital from tourists as possible.

Fiscally speaking, we are diametrically opposed to this, so we would not have been surprised if when we first stepped onto the Champs, a black hole had torn open and swallowed up the whole of France. Seriously, we are that cheap.

But even the cheap have to eat, especially after the grueling march down the Champs that is filled with one amazing scene after another – and all of these being of towering women teetering on five-inch stilettos, their upright state only ensured by keeping their designer shopping bags equally weighted.

We stumbled from one sidewalk cafe to another, holding back our gasps at the posted menu prices of 50-Euro ($70 Cdn.) prices.

Fois gras? Or Klik?

We settled on the L’Alsace restaurant, which boasted a steal-of-a-deal tourist special at about $20/person. It seemed too good to be true and we braced ourselves to be fed horse or goat meat. Inside, the waiters waved their menus and delivered subtle scowls at any suggestion we were of such low-class as to dine on so humble a meal as their lunch special, but we happily took our place at the bottom of Pari’s culinary totem pole and ordered the special anyway.

Dave had the mashed duck liver, more appealingly tagged Pate’ de Foie Gras, which arrived looking like it had been sliced right out of a can of Klik. Were the French punishing us for our fiscal frugality? Mais non! It turned out the pate’ was quite good.
I had the sautéed goat cheese, which was a meal in itself. It came folded in phyllo, lightly turned in a pan of butter with a splash of sweet sauce – delicious. The main course – roast chicken breast on rice was plain in appearance, but tender and nicely seasoned. For the poor-man’s dinner on the sidewalks of the Champs Elysees, it was pretty good.

Goat cheese, along with an understated green salad.

On or off the Champs, Parisian cafes are a delight, although sometimes the scene of cultural clashes. 

This is because European waiters are not only the bringers-of-food; they are also the guardians of cuisine culture.

At lunch outside Napoleon’s tomb, I ordered a croissant “avec buerre,” causing our waiter’s nostrils to flare and his brow to furrow.  He corrected my faux pas by bringing only the croissant. Having dueled with European waiters on points of dining etiquette before (eg. never order coffee at the beginning of a meal in Spain), I shrugged and ate the croissant sans butter.

It was just as well. It was gossamer-light, free of the slippery butter texture of its North American cousins, not that there’s anything wrong with buttery croissants.

At another cafe, a compliment on the quiche earned an introduction to the chef who painstakingly described how to repeat the feat.
I am now armed with his secret recipe, but it’s in French, and only scribbled into my memory, so our guests will have to be satisfied with the quiche recipe we got from our neighbour Dan (the insurance man who wore a suit while he built our garden shed, but that is another story).
The frugal can find food in Paris without hitting a McDonalds (yes, McDonalds is in Paris – but not on the Champs – and I regret we didn’t give it a go, because we’ve seen curiously culturally altered McDonalds at other places).
Average expenditure per person per day: $80-$100. Could we go cheaper? Yes, we always can.
Apologies: WordPress is exhibiting some formatting problems. My apologies for the paragraph-jams. 

Paris food – can you eat lamb’s kidney without having to sell your own?

Sweet treats and good rib-sticking eats all in one shopping spot at French bakeries and patisseries.

The first question is why would you want to eat a lamb’s kidney anyway? Gross.  That aside, French food enjoys a reputation that tops all others, but do they deserve it?

It’s easy to trot into France’s finest restaurants and emerge satisfied that the nation’s cuisine is all that is claimed. But what about those of us who blanche at $75 lunches? What is French food like for the mid-to-low range diner? Does Paris even have a mid-to-low-range dining echelon?

We-the-cheap conducted an in-depth 48-hour study on this topic. Here is what we found.

Patisseries/boulangeries, that is, combination pastry and bakery shops, are great sources for not-so-expensive, but still delicious, day-time meals, and these shops are everywhere.

Aux Armes de Niel, the  boulangerie (photo above)  at the corner down from our hotel sold soup-bowl-sized take-out quiches and other sustaining  foods (mini-pizzas, although I don’t know if they called them that) for under $10 each.  The alternative was our hotel breakfast at 20 Euros, that is,  over $30 Cdn. each. No thanks.

400-year-old French cafe. No one was there. We're not saying this suggests that its age corresponded to the length of time customers waited for a meal, but you have to wonder.

It also sold fabulous overfilled cream pastries, if such can be said to be truly over-filled. After all, this is whipped cream. There’s never too much of it, so the French seem to think and, after sampling the goods, we agree.  The pastries themselves were heavenly- flakey, light, everything Pilsbury dough-boy claims, but is not. French pastry is a perfect jacket for French fillings and toppings.

If you’re deciding between French ice cream and French pastries as your guilt-food for the day, pick the pastries. The ice cream is good, but ice cream tops out at a certain point anywhere in the globe and I can prove it by producing homemade ice cream at my Ontario cottage that could stand up alongside the French’s. Note to cottage guests: But I won’t do that, because summer is the time to laze on the dock – not a good place for churning ice cream.  Note to those searching for the greatest scoop of ice cream: Head to Atlanta, Georgia. Break into any home-kitchen and demand the contents of their churn. Seriously. You will not be disappointed.

San Remo Pizzeria in Paris; artichoke, olive and pepper pizzaBut I digress.

We scoured the streets for under-$30/person fare and found a few places, such as the San Remo’s Pizzeria near the Place de Marechal Juin roundabout and Pereire metro station.  There, I had a delicious vegetarian pizza with artichokes that did not appear to have ever graced the insides of a jar.

Dave had the grilled salmon and spaghetti alla chitarra, a substantial thick spaghetti noodle cooked to just the right degree of resistance and subtly seasoned.

With a glass of the house wine and a beer, the total came to $36.90. Shocking, all the more so for having been so delicious.  The atmosphere on this Paris sidewalk cafe was great, too. The staff (probably Italians) were nowhere near as snooty as French servers’ reputation suggests.

Tomorrow: Dining on the Champs Elysees – Can it be done for under $70 a person?