Wednesday, October 7, 2009


A mirabelle is a delicious little plum that is about the size of a quarter in diameter. Sometimes, although these don't, they have a red blush.

Lorraine is the region of France best known for its mirabelles, especially the cities of Metz and Nancy, which both have their own varietals ... and festivals celebrating the mirabelle (Metz even has a Miss Mirabelle!). In fact, the "Mirabelle of Lorraine" has something called an Indication Géographique Protégée which says that only mirabelles grown in a specified list of cities, towns and villages can be called Mirabelles of Lorraine (kind of like the AOC label on wine, but with seemingly fewer restrictions). The list of towns in the "appelation" is determined by, among other factors, historical references dating from the 16th century about the place of the mirabelle in literature and in texts on local gastronomy.

They ripen in August and are still quite tasty in early September, although I haven't seen any in the markets for a couple of weeks now. They are extremely flavorful. Put that colander of mirabelles on the table next to you and you will smell apple-vanilla-plummy goodness without even sticking your nose down next to the fruit. They're unbelievable.

The one area where they don't excel, at least not the ones we have tried, is in texture: they're often a little mealy (for me). But you don't notice that at all when they're made into the jam. I guess technically what James made is a compote because it's just cooked down mirabelles, lemon juice and a little sugar, but we eat it like jam. And by "like jam" I mean out of the reused Bonne Maman jar, by the heaping spoonful.

Or you can do things the more traditional way and eat it on bread.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Serving suggestions

There has always been a special place in my heart for the "serving suggestion" caption on food packaging. I mean, how else would I have known that I could eat my cereal with milk?

In France, the serving suggestion is taken to a whole 'nother level.

Here's one idée repas équilibré, or "an idea for a balanced meal", taken from a carton of gazpacho (yes, we buy it ... we don't have a blender):

Don't even think about having that meal with plain gouda instead of gouda with cumin, or with a baguette instead of bran bread!

Here's the way you might consider eating your blueberry yogurt:

Thanks, blueberry yogurt! I never would have thought of that!

And for the 6-10-year-old children who eat my Nutella, here's an idea for un goûter équilibré, or "a balanced afternoon snack", after a full day: a slice of bread with Nutella, a plain yogurt and a glass of orange juice.

But how much Nutella? How much orange juice? Not to worry, the fine print perpendicular to the rest of the label tells you that it's 30g of bread, 15g of Nutella, 125g of yogurt and 100ml of orange juice. Voilà!

I make fun, but this is a country whose ads for just about everything consumable (especially snacky things) include the phrases "for your health, avoid snacking/eating between meals" or "for your health, get some physical activity" or "for your health, eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day".

And besides, gazpacho really is a fresh and tasty way to eat my vegetables!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

First anniversary

Actually, we got to Marseille a year and eleven days ago, and we hadn't even found our current apartment a year ago at this time. And the not-so-prompt beginnings of the blog? Well that was just under 10 months ago, but who's counting?

The point is, by some measure, we've been here for a year. So to celebrate our first anniversary in France, we went to Spain!

James had a conference in Barcelona, so I met him there and we stayed a couple of extra days. Museums, beautiful buildings, sites, food (thanks to Ann and Dalen for their recs!), music. It was great!

I took the bus for a cool 60€ round-trip. So what if it took more than eight hours to make what Google calls a 4h33mn drive? It was cheaper than driving and, overall, pretty pleasant.

I had been a little worried about the notification on my ticket that for the comfort of other passengers there would be no eating aboard but, clearly, eating was allowed ...

So I did not feel guilty eating the sandwich I had made, over the bag I had brought it in.

I had not been worried about the other half of the notification on my ticket that there would be no smoking on board. Like the proscription on eating, though, the rule was not strictly enforced. There was smoking on board, but only by the driver and only with his window open. He also sang along in something like harmony with the chorus of Cher's Believe. Not an easy feat when you think about the synthesized vocals in that song. He deserved a cigarette or two.

And at the end of it all an ultra-stylish, but budget hotel was waiting for me.

Day 1 (for me ... James was still conferencing)
At the base of Monjuïc is the Plaça d'Espanya, which marks the entrance to the pavilions of the International Exhibition of 1929. Right on the Plaça is the Arena de Barcelona, built in 1900 in the Moorish style.

It used to be a bullfighting ring, but is now being turned into a shopping center with the help of that big crane.

Here's a view up the hill to the Palau Nacional, built for the International Exhibition.

The Palau Nacional now houses the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC), which is a huge collection of the art from Catalunya from the 11th century to mid-20th century. The coolest part, even though it's generally not one of my favorite periods for art, was the Romanesque collection (11th - 13th centuries). From this link, you can see samples of art from these rooms, but what you'll see doesn't do it justice.

Basically, back in the early 1920s it became apparent that a great deal of art from the Romanesque churches of the region was being sold to foreign collectors. In order to keep the art in Spain, The Board of Museums had it removed from the churches and reconstructed it elsewhere. To do that, the paintings (or what remained of them after 700 years) were cleaned, then covered with lime casein (which seems to be some kind of natural paint?), and then fabric. Apparently this allows the painting (or by a related technique the painting and some of the plaster behind it) to be stuck to the fabric and pulled off the wall. It can then be reattached to a new wall in a different place, which is what you can see at the MNAC.

So as you walk through this section of the museum, they have it set up so that it's like you're walking through these Romanesque churches.

It was cool.

On the way up to the Palau Nacional, you walk by the Metalurgy Pavillion, which has this really cool facade.

You will also walk past the extremely beautiful Mies van der Rohe pavilion.

The original was the German pavilion for the 1929 Exhibition and, following tradition, was torn down after the Exhibition ended. It was rebuilt in the mid-80s.

Here's a view back at the Plaça d'Espanya, most of the tourists cropped from the photo.

Here's another view from the Palau toward Gaudí's Sagrada Familia in the center-left of the picture (which, I'm sad to say, looks like a dying spider with its legs in the air in this picture) and the Torre Agbar, by Jean Nouvel, on the right (the shiny, blue-gray torpedo-shaped tower). The Torre Agbar was supposed to reflect the shapes Gaudí used and at the same time echo the form of the mountains at nearby Montserrat.

On my way home, I stopped by Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, built in the Moorish style for the 1888 Universal Exhibition.

And here's James looking out the back of our room onto the terrace and up at the rooftop of the Pedrera.

Then it was time for dinner. Or almost.

As it turned out Cal Boter, an old-school Catalan place off the beaten track, didn't open for dinner until 9pm. So when we got there at 20h45, we gave our names and went to get an apéro at a nearby bar.

At 9:15 we went back and they were ready for us.

Seared foie gras with roasted peppers and eggplant on a Catalan style flatbread in the foreground and mushrooms stuffed with a salt cod-potato-garlic mixture. Yum!

Filet with porcini mushrooms (not the most attractive of presentations, but mushroomy and beefy and very tender).

Cabrito with roasted potatoes. It was delicious -- even I thought so and I tend not to be fond of the goat.

All accompanied by a Rioja, which we hadn't had for ages, and finished with a coffee. (It just felt a little late to start dessert at 11:30 ... but not for a coffee, if that makes any sense at all.)

Day 2
After a leisurely morning and brunch, we walked along the Port Vell (the old port) over to the Ramblas and wandered up the Ramblas and through the Barri Gotíc. Of course we had to stop at the Mercat de la Boqueria.

Where we got delicious fruit juices: guanabana and dragon fruit.

We went to the Cathedral, Saint Eulalia, which is mostly covered in scaffolding making for a poor picture. However, you can take an elevator up to the roof and walk around on some of that scaffolding.

In Parc Güell we decided to play "Where's Waldolisa?". You probably will find me because as I look at this picture it sort of seems like a good portion of the thousands of other tourists who were at the park cleared out of the frame right at the moment James snapped his picture.

There were so many people there you couldn't really take any pictures of most of the structures without having 100 strangers in the photo. (Seriously, try counting the number of little heads in that photo -- 100 easy!) Besides, those are things you've probably all seen or seen pictures of before. Here are a couple of pictures James took of items less photographed.

The chain links in this gate were soft, not rigid:

After all that sightseeing, and French-speaking (we ran into some tourists who needed help) we needed a snack.

Tapas at Tapaç24. It's a low-key, basement tapas bar owned by a celebrity chef with a much pricier and more famous restaurant to his name. The tapas were very tasty, but the service was extremely poor.

"Bikini" with serrano, mozzarella and truffles.

Croquetes of jamón ibérico.

We also ordered some fried anchovies. However, these never came. And our waiter didn't bother to tell us that they were out until we asked for our check and he noticed that he'd never brought them. Sigh.

Dinner that night was at Ann's recommendation, somoRRostro. The food was fabulous, the restaurant was very attractive and the staff were extremely friendly and poured water and replaced silverware with a flourish. If only I had video.

I do have some more no-flash photos of our food though.

Purple potatoes with marinated mackerel and parmesan mayo.

The 'mayo' was just a smear on the left side of the plate (under the fennel).

Sautéed sepia with toasted rice sprinkles.

"Hake" (and by that I mean monkfish because they ran out of hake) with shitakes, asparagus and sweet garlic.

Monkfish three ways: potatoes, sizzled jamón ibérico and kale.

Chocolate cake (very good) with its foam (an unfortunate mint chocolate) and mango ice cream.

Financier with seasonal fruits and a sweet wine sauce. Also, those little white cubes are marshmallows.

Mmmmmmm ...

Day 3
One thing that was really remarkable about Barcelona was the number of tourists. Now, it's not so surprising that there would be tourists at tourist sights, but the sheer number of tourists, nearly everywhere, was astounding. We were tourists, and it still felt like there were tons of tourists there.

This is a picture of Casa Batlló, and there are about 50 people standing outside in line to get it. It's already open.

We went back to Montjuïc and walked around the outside of the Palau, through the Olympic park and then went to the Miró museum (no photos allowed).

We enjoyed the gardens behind the ethnological museum. As did these other tourists who decided to hang out for a while discussing the ins and outs of lily pads.

We went in the Pedrera, but couldn't go on the roof because of rain. So no close-ups of those chimneys over James' head in that picture out of our hotel.

Since it was not quite 9:00 and too early for dinner, we decided to go to a classical guitar concert in the Basilica Santa Maria del Pí.

And then it was time for dinner.

On a Sunday night at 10:30pm, pretty much nothing is open in Aix. Not so in Barcelona. Things are still hopping.

Fried anchovies.

Pulpo a la plancha with patatas bravas.

But wait, there's more!

As if two people could eat any more (I didn't even include everything -- did I mention that I think we gained weight in Barcelona?), there was still Monday morning before James' flight and my bus. The highlight was another juice drink (and the manchego and serrano we bought for later!).

Blackberry and guava-coconut-vanilla.

So here's to another year!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How 'bout them apples?

France doesn't seem like a top spot for exotic fruits. At least, not to me. The fruit here is really good, but it's really good cherries, peaches, plums, pears ... the usual. And then the not-so-usual: la nèfle, or loquat.

Well, it's a distant relative of the apple, so maybe it's not sooooooo exotic after all.

It turns out that there are two nèflier du Japon, or "loquat trees" growing at the lab. (So, technically, the fruit is a nèfle du Japon and not just a nèfle, which is a "medlar", but people just call them nèfle.)

In late June, these beautiful fruit appeared on them.

A colleague was kind enough to tell us what they were and that we could eat them.

They were delicious. They're juicy and tangy and they remind both me and James of a kiwi in flavor.

The flesh is the same color as the peel and surrounds four or five pips that look like super-sized apple seeds. Although you can't see it in this picture, the seeds are a pretty sort of mottled, pearly dark brown color.

I can't wait until next spring so I can eat them again. I have to say that I think that there are probably better specimens than these loquats (not to be confused with what I had been told were loquats, but are actually the very delicious wampee) because the trees aren't really cared for, they just sort of grow in the lab parking lot. Also, we picked these in late June after the fruit had been there for a while. So if you've had loquats and they looked different, maybe that's why.

This was just the first of our 'wild'-found fruit of the season.

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Monday, July 27, 2009


There are lots of swifts in Aix. They fly very close to our terrace in the evenings. We originally thought they were swallows, but then we realized they were martinet, or swifts.

It makes us think of watching the swifts on Ken and Jill's roof deck with a champagne cocktail (champagne with a bitters-soaked sugar cube -- try it, it's delicious, but it was Jill's recipe and I can't remember the name). Sigh.

Here's a video (quality isn't great because it's night and taken with our camera). You can see and hear how close they fly in toward the terrace.

They're pretty cool to watch because they fly really fast and very close to the windows on the street side of our apartment too. What I would love is to have a video of them flying up into the roof tiles. There's no stopping to land on the gutter and then stepping in, or even (apparently) slowing down. They just fly right in.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Bastille Day

(Last) Tuesday was le Quatorze Juillet (the 14th of July), which is la Fête Nationale of France. As is common for many holidays that occur mid-week, lots of people chose to faire le pont or, litterally, "make the bridge" between the weekend and the mid-week holiday so they took off Monday too. The lab was a ghost town.

Although it isn't exactly the same thing, (even though both do mark the birth of the nation) le Quatorze Juillet (not called "Bastille Day" by the French even though it commemorates the holiday that commemorates the storming of the Bastille), sort of feels like the 4th of July.

To take advantage of our day off, James and I went on an excursion to the Lac Sainte-Croix du Verdon via Moustiers-Sainte-Marie with other students from the program through which James is taking French classes. We had thought this would be an excellent day full of French speaking. However, somehow, only the American college students (plus one Belgian and one Brazilian) went. And they spoke English all day. Maybe that was why it felt like the 4th?

Here's Moustiers-Sainte-Marie from above.

The town is famous for its faïence, and has been since the 17th century when Louis XIV requisitioned all the gold and silver in the kingdom and had it melted down to finance foreign wars. The story goes that he replaced what he had taken with faïence from Moustiers.

There was a revitalization of the faïence tradition in the 1920s and there are lots of workshops where you can see it and buy it. But instead of looking at faïence, we went on a little hike up the side of the hill past the Grotto of Mary Magdalene to the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir.

There have been chapels of sorts here since the 5th century -- even the great Charlemagne built one in the 9th century -- but most of the current Notre Dame de Beauvoir wasn't built until the 12th century, with some restorations in the 1500s.

Here's the wooden door, which dates from the Renaissance.

Inside it was so dark you couldn't see a thing, not really even the gold on the altar. But with a slow shutter speed ...

This chapel has been a pilgrimage site since the 1600s when parents brought their still-born children here to be resuscitated, just long enough to be baptized. Then, according to the informational plaque, the children were buried in the cemetery.

Then we went to the Lac Saint-Croix du Verdon.

Lac Saint-Croix is an artificial lake formed in the early 70s when the national electric company built a dam at the end of the Verdon Gorge. It was, as most dams are, somewhat controversial and included the swallowing-up of a 12th century town called Les Salles sur Verdon. You can see some photos of the last days of the town here. Apparently, only a few vestiges of the old town were moved before the town was razed.

But the lake is really nice.

We had sandwiches in the town of Saint Croix (above the lake). We missed out on a lake-view by about a minute. (The little girl in the green shirt and her parents beat us to it!)

And then went down to the beach to swim.

On the way back, we stopped by one of the many gigantic lavender fields in the area. Even without those power lines in the background, this picture really wouldn't do it justice. The lavender actually looked much brighter than this.

The minute we got out of the bus, we could smell it. It was great.

And no national holiday is complete with out fireworks! It's no Farleigh Road in UA on the 4th, but here's a sample of the Aixois fireworks from our terrasse. By not seeing the whole spectacle, you aren't missing much: they were only blue (liberté), white (égalité) and red (fraternité).

Monday, July 13, 2009

New work digs!

When we first got here, the Laboratoire Parole et Langage occupied the fourth and fifth floors of a wing at La Fac (the University).

Here's James in his office in front of his super high-powered computer with gigantic monitor.

Here's the view from his office window at mid-day:

And in the afternoon:

It's a beautiful view. But what you probably didn't notice, because you were so distracted by the warm light of the setting sun and the pretty hills in the distance, is the state of the building.

It's falling apart.

Take a closer look at that second photo. See the buildings in the foreground? The tile siding is falling off everywhere. There are actually courtyards you can't go into because there's a risk of getting hit by a tile. And here's one courtyard where they've put up metal nets to catch falling tiles.

I didn't take that last one. It's part of a series of photos (multiple, unknown photographers) that was put into a powerpoint and disseminated during the recent series of strikes.

The inside of the fac isn't any better. For example, the heat didn't work in the offices. Some of the radiators, although not the one in James' office (which still didn't work) looked like this (from the same series of photos):

Wires just hang from the ceiling, next to stalactites from some unidentified leak (from that same series of photos):

I'm not even going to show you pictures of the bathrooms. No toilet seats, and no soap, no paper towels or hand dryers.

You can see some more photos here. The photos were taken between 2005 and 2009. Even the older ones are accurate reflections of what things look like.

The lab was supposed to move to the new space in September. And then in December. And then in January. And then finally, in February, the new space opened. It was officially inaugurated on May 25th.

It's really nice.

James has a desk in le open space, or "open space" area for postdocs and visiting researchers. As you can sort of tell from this picture, looking up at the back of James' head, postdocs are on a higher level than the visiting researchers (like me).

The area is sort of like an attic, but a nice, finished attic on the second floor of the building. It has a bunch of new, really nice machines at nice desks. It even has skylights (as you can make out above James in the photo) with high-tech shades within the storm window so you can get some shade when the afternoon sun is too intense.

Here's James at his new desk.

As it turns out, I too will be a postdoc in the fall. A real, full-time, paid one. Normally, this would mean that I'd get to move up to the postdoc area of le open space ... except that the only available desk up there is sort of facing James (to his right as he looks at his computer) and the lab thinks that's too close. (Too much making eyes at your workmates or something!) So instead I'll be in le open space in the other building. Pictures to follow, when I actually have a desk ... or a few months later when I post about it.

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