Out to Lunch in Dordogne, France

I’m writing at the kitchen table, as I usually do, before dawn. The sun rises slowly, though here in the Dordogne region of France, dawn seems to drag on forever, like a long twilight in reverse. Morning is not much fun: fog and mist often continue until lunchtime when the sun finally breaks through and shoos the grey away. Jackets and scarves for the morning: t-shirts and sun hats for the afternoon. No wind spoils Autumn, no leaves quiver: the climbing vines on village stone cottages are turning crimson and pink.

Autumn in Dordogne, France
Autumn in the Dordogne, France

On days like this, an outdoor lunch calls, perhaps a picnic by the Vezere river or a drive to a nearby village, just in time to nab an outside table at a little inn for the menu du midi. For us it will depend on the offerings of the day, which are chalked up on boards at around 11 am. Some days the menu has little appeal: it’s often duck gesiersmagret de canard, salade d’ aiguilllettes, or fois gras – it’s a hard life for ducks and geese around here. As pescatarians ( vegetarians who eat some fish on occasion), we can be hard to please in this region so there’s always a back up plan.

Saint-Léon sur Vézère.  Three course menu for 18 euro. Pumpkin soup, pave of trout, tiramisu of pear with a zabaglione topping.  Demi litre of  Bergerac, 7 euro
Veloute de citrouille.
Pave de Truite.
Tiramisu with a difference. Fresh ripe pear, crumbled ginger biscuits, zabaglione cream

Packed in a little box in the boot of our car is a good goat’s cheese, a few tomatoes, a baguette and a bottle of Bergerac Rosé for our little field trips into the woods, rivers and villages of the lovely Dordogne countryside. If we pass a market on the way, we add a homemade walnut tart, a bag of apples, or perhaps a nice quiche. One way or the other, there’s always a good lunch.

Picnic by the Dordogne River
Confluence of the Vezere and Dordogne rivers. Limeuil.
Gateaux aux noix at La Bugue market. Walnut season.
I’m still cooking. Apple and strawberry tart. But why bother in the land of Patisserie.
Huge yellow tomatoes. French markets.
Another tempting spot by the Vezere river

A Village Church at Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, Dordogne

I’ve lost count of the church doors that have drawn me inside during the last few weeks in France. Big or small, grandiose or modest, they all appeal in different ways. The scaled down medieval church in the village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère took me to the land of quiet meditation, more than most. The church, built in the 12th century on Gallo- Roman ruins, has been meticulously restored but the interior decor remains minimalist, evocative and artistic. Time to light a candle and reflect inside this glorious small space.

Black Madonna and baby

More on the beautiful village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, my favourite village in the Dordogne, next post.

For WordPress photographic prompt this week. Scale

Travelling out of Season in Brittany, France

With travel now readily available, especially within Europe, many little ports, towns and villages in Brittany have become inundated with visitors and holidaymakers during the Northern Hemisphere summer, from June to August, making travel less appealing. The British fly to Rennes or Dinan in Brittany very cheaply with Ryan Air, Fly Kiss or Easy Jet, take a car on the ferry, or drive through the tunnel via Paris. And so you would expect this area of France to be busy. Those not travelling independently are met by a 16 to 45 seater bus which then tours the area. These buses are out of place in tiny villages, clogging town squares, a reminder of those disgusting towering cruise ships dominating the Venetian canals which the Italian authorities are too cowardly to deal with.

Centre of town, Pont Aven. Late September, evening.

Considering Pont Aven as a microcosm of this phenomena, there’s only one way to avoid these invasions: travel in late September or anytime out of season. The weather won’t be so gloriously sunny, and at times it will be quite moist, but I consider this to be a fair trade-off. You will find a quiet market square and a village getting on with its business in a ‘post seasonal’ way and you will hear French spoken. On some days, a few buses might land in the square- arriving at 11am, most stay for around 30 minutes or so, as the tourists disembark to buy the local buttery biscuits, canned fish products from the conserveries, or stare through the windows of the ateliers, the 40 artist workshops flogging colourful paintings of sea themes. And then the town returns to normal.

Boats along the Aven River. The walk to the sea is around 8 kms.

Pont Aven has always been popular with travellers. Paul Gauguin spent extended periods in this town in the late 1880s and early 1890s, establishing, with others, the Synthetist style, a break from Impressionism. Their work is often characterised by the bold use of colour, the abandonment of faithful representation and perspective, with flat forms separated by dark contours, and geometrical composition free of any unnecessary detail and trimmings. The modern Pont Aven art school tends to follow this style.

Boats on the Aven River, Pont Aven

His legacy has left its mark on the town. Some walks follow in his footsteps, with little plaques dotted here and there, depicting Bretagne scenes of the local people or boating scenes. Art workshops dominate the retail scene here, but most are closed after August or only open during the weekend. The result of their presence, as well as the proximity of an Intermarche supermarket less than 1 km away, means the loss of a second boulangerie and a functional epicerie within the town. The town’s commerce is out of balance with a preponderance of outlets catering to the visiting tourist and not the locals. There are two or three good restaurants in the centre, often with reduced opening times, a creperie, one boulangerie, a bar, and a wine cave. A small market operates weekly in the town square. Many shops have closed and will be replaced, most likely, by yet another art gallery.

Pont Aven waterways through the centre of town

The district of Finisterre, in which Pont Aven is located, is heavily populated along the coastal area, in contrast to my recollections of the coastal areas in Morbihan. Beautiful farming land, away from the sea fringes, is dotted with smaller hamlets and villages, and larger medieval towns, such as Quimper. On cool days, motoring around the countryside is a pleasant way to spend the day. A visit to Locronan, one of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France‘, is worth the drive, but go early before the buses arrive. Like many a designated belle village, Locronon is on the cusp of becoming too faux. Once the tourist shops move in, the rent goes up and local retail suffers. The up side of this designation means these beautiful medieval buildings are carefully restored.

Locronin, Brittany

But then, this is the story of any lovely spot in France. Travel slowly, go outside of the tourist season, and most of all, attempt to speak French, however poorly, and always use your inside voice, even when outside. Intrusiveness, I’ve found, comes down to the volume of voice used by fellow travellers.

Wet day mist over the Aven.
City scene in Quimper, Brittany. Once the capital of Cornouille.

 

A Walk in the Bois d’Amour

If you go down to the ‘bois’ today, you’re in for a big surprise!

The Bois d’Amour, an hour’s walk through a dense and ancient forest, begins right in the heart of Pont Aven’s village. It is surprising, enchanting, mysterious and gentle. You’ll emerge from these woods transformed.

The walk begins just under the one lane bridge near the centre of town. After passing a wild garden of flowers, raspberries and pumpkins, tended by a nearby Merlin, the woods turn deep, dark and mossy, with old cypress, oak, beech and chestnut trees shading the way. Fallen Autumn leaves drift across the moist muddy path.

Who tends this garden in the no man’s land under the bridge?

Unlike in the centre of town where the Avon river races by with enough speed and force to turn mighty water mills, here it runs like a liquid stream of dark molasses, with an occasional skip rover rocks and fallen logs.

Near the Moulin Neuf, the half way point in the walk, a quaint old building appears out of nowhere, probably the remains of that ninth mill. On our return, a quiet older man in a crumpled beige suit, silver hair streaming over his shoulders, magically emerges, his head bowed over a bowl, replenishing some cat food. Bonsoir, bonsoir.

The woods darken in places and become almost frightening, then all is gentle again as a love seat rises in the bend of the river.

Love Seat, Bois d’Amour

Fallen chestnuts litter the ground, opened and devoid of their nuts, like exotic birds or creatures from another time.

The things you find in the woods- ordinary things, like love, nature, beauty and peace.

Included in pedestrian, this weeks photo challenge on WordPress.

Bois d’Amour, Pont Aven

That Petite Maison in Pont Aven

It’s hard to say adieu to the sweet little houses that become your home for a week or two. Much more than hotels, B&Bs, agriturismi or apartments, little rental houses minister comfort and care to the weary traveller. The little house in Pont Aven, with its ancient and thick stone walls, stayed an even temperature all day and welcomed us home each afternoon after our wanderings through the Cornouille district of Bretagne.

Winding wooden stairs lead to two bedrooms and bathrooms on two floors above.

The following photo collage is a media file for those who enjoy travelling vicariously and who asked to peep inside this little French houses. ‘La Petite Tourte’ was filled with luxurious linens, crisply ironed and sweet-smelling, two modern bathrooms, large leather sofas in the sitting room, a spiral staircase leading to the upper levels, a light filled kitchen, tasteful art and no Ikea. The house is advertised through VRBO, a part of Home Away, which provides holiday rentals by owners, similar in many ways to Air B&B.

Antiques and art. Sideboard filled with games. No time for games.
Light filled spot on top level. View over chimneys in the village.

At the end of my travels, I intend to summarise the differences between renting through Airb&b, and VRBO and also take a look at the rise of bookings.com, traditional hotels and B&Bs. Each one has its place.

 

In My Kitchen, October 2017. Bretagne

After travelling around Central and Eastern Europe for three weeks, I was really looking forward to our first French rental house. Before unpacking or looking at the other rooms, I checked the kitchen and its equipment, running around like a headless chook, opening cupboards and drawers. The kitchen in Pont Aven, Brittany, did not disappoint. The cupboards were well equipped with decent wine glasses, serving platters, quality frying pans, a set of sharp knives, a pasta pot and some oven proof gratin dishes. This was a cook’s kitchen. These things are often missing from rental houses.

The kitchen, on Rue Le Petite Tourte, Pont Aven, Brittany

Outside the kitchen, beyond the tiny enclosed stone wall yard, a rapidly running stream provided a soothing background symphony to my kitchen activities. The rapids form part of the watery world which makes up this ancient mill town. Pont Aven’s water courses, the River Aven and it’s creeks, once operated around 14 water wheel grain mills. Many old stone houses are built directly above or next to a rapid. As the weather was damp and fairly cool, winter comfort food dominated my cooking style in this stylish stone house.

Produce bought at the local market. Backyard, Pont Aven, Brittany.

The food of Brittany is tempting, with plenty of seafood and fish, apples and cider, the famous creamy butter with fleur de sel, buttery biscuits, tarts and cakes such as Far Breton and Kouign-amann, not to mention the crepes made from Blé Noir, or buckwheat. We occasionally dined out, but in the end, the lure of the kitchen and home cooked meals became too great.

Some basics from the local supermarche.

Who can resist cooking with Crème Fraîche ( entiere s’il vous plaît ) when a small carton costs around 0.66€. My new cheat’s white sauce is a winner. Add one finely chopped garlic to a few tablespoons of crème fraîche, let it sit while you cook some pasta. Drain the pasta well, then return to the same pan, stir the sauce through the hot pasta, add some chunky smoked salmon and lots of herbs. Voilà.

Fasta Pasta

I found these cute pot set yoghurts at the market in the nearby village of Tregunc, straight from the dairy farm. Sold in little glass jars for 0.40€ each. I will never eat commercial yoghurt again.

Breakfast Pont Aven. Pot set yoghurt with peaches and raspberries

Sometimes when driving about for the day, lunch is simple: a smelly cheese from the market and a baguette from the boulangerie.

Car snacks.

I’ve developed a taste for this lovely red wine from the Loire, Chinon.

A light red wine, Chinon, from the Loire region

French cooking is superb but there’s plenty of cheating going on too. Freshly cooked beetroot is available in all the markets. They make a great entrée with some goat cheese.

On market day, the Roti stall is popular, as sensibly dressed older women come to buy their rotisserie chicken, beef or saussison along with a portion of Boulangerie potatoes.

I succumbed to the roast man’s version of Far Breton, a nice little dessert to take back to my kitchen to reheat. I make Far Breton at home, mostly for my D.I.L, who can’t get enough of the stuff. I love the way the prunes are suspended in this version.

Far Breton- for Leanne.
Trying to stay away from the Patisserie.

The Traou Mad galettes of Pont Aven are irresistible. This tin has been refilled twice!

Also trying to stay away from the real estate office! House for sale in a little village near Pont Aven. Fantasies abound in every village. Dangereux!!!

For Rod.

I’m linking up with Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings, once again, who hosts In My Kitchen, a monthly series where bloggers share their kitchen inspirations. If you’re new to blogging and love food, this is a great way to join up with other like-minded folk. There are no rules and no obligations. Write about your kitchen and get the post linked by the 10th of each month.

Absinthe Bars of Prague

Absinthe bars are extremely common in Prague. I was drawn to these windows for their play on the myths and legends associated with this strong herbal based spirit. I really wanted to hang out late at night, to perch a sugar cube on top of a silver spoon and watch the ice-cold water drip onto the Absinthe, to don a Bohemian beret and talk to the ghosts of writers past, but my drinking companion, Mr Sensible T, showed no interest in la fée verte. Now I have these pictures of Absinthe Bars with no story to tell at all. 

Kraków the Brave

Kraków is a remarkably city. It’s the surprise card of a three-week trip through Central Europe. Elegant and stately 18th and 19th century buildings line the narrow streets while the huge market square dominates the center of the old city. The manageable size of the city, the ease of getting around on foot, and the palpable creative and youthful energy one senses makes Krakow a great place to visit.

Krakow. Market Square on a sunny Autumn day.

The main square, Rynek Główny in Polish, dates back to the 13th century: at 9.4 acres in size, it is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. This space is overpowering, hypnotic and graceful. It is irresistible at any time of the day, and with this size, never gets too crowded. Often main squares in European cities are best avoided in peak times, especially in the tourist season.

One small corner of Market Square, Krakow

The square is surrounded by historic townhouses, churches and the central Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style. The cloth hall today has small tourist shops selling Polish themed trinkets. The building is long, rectangular and graceful. Other buildings edging the square, include the Town Hall Tower, the 10th century Church of St Adalbert, and many restaurants covered by market umbrellas along with heavy-duty heaters.

Market Square, Krakow
Another beautiful building lining the Market Square, Krakow

Historically, Krakow has been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life. It enjoyed its golden era during the 15th century, with Renaissance artists and architects flocking to the city. Despite the horrors of WW2 and the Nazi occupation of Kraków, followed by Stalinist control of all intellectual life, Krakow has, in the 21st century, re-emerged as a place of culture and education. In 2000, Kraków was named European Capital of Culture. In 2013 Kraków was officially approved as a UNESCO City of Literature. There are 250, 000 tertiary students in the city. Music venues are thriving, as well as the arts and literature. You can feel the energy in the streets.

The central market square attracts excellent musicians and buskers at any hour of the day.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland at the start of  WW2, Kraków became the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city was forced into a Ghetto, which was later walled in: from there, they were sent to German extermination camps, at the nearby Auschwitz  and Birkenau. During that short period, 65,000 Jews from Krakow were murdered. The reality of this horrendous evil is reinforced through a visit to Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, a museum and exhibition of life in Kraków under Nazi occupation 1939-45, housed on the former site of Schindler’s factory. A visit to this display, which will take around two to three hours, is a must. Catch a taxi to the factory and buy tickets there. There is no need to go with a group or a guide. Warning: the exhibition is deeply moving and disturbing. The following photo collage is a media file, which opens as a slide show, depicting a few images from this museum.

There are also tours of Nowa Huta, a separate district of Krakow, and one of only two planned Socialist realist settlements or districts ever built and “one of the most renowned examples of deliberate social engineering” in the entire world.¹ A tour with Walkative Tours of Krakow with a guide well versed in the history of Stalinism, and its application in Poland, was available. But in the end, we chose the food tour, a great way to learn more about the traditional foods of Krakow.

The gentle sound of clip clopping horses in the streets nearby the central square.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, modern Kraków is brave, proud, lively and welcoming.

East Wall Gallery, Berlin

The East Side Gallery, an open air gallery along a 1.3 kilometre stretch of the retained Berlin wall, is a wonderful expression of hope and optimism, painted in 1990 by artists from all over the world. Not only is it an historical record of the end of an era, but is also a symbol of open borders and the freedom of movement which European residents now enjoy.

The most famous panel: restored, repainted and admired.” My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love.” Repainted from a photograph of the original panel. East Side Gallery, Berlin.

Most of the panels today have been repainted, layered over years of tagging, graffiti and vandalism. You would think that this preservation would be a logical step, yet the move has been met with major conflict. “Eight of the artists of 1990 refused to paint their own images again after they were completely destroyed by the renovation.”

In order to defend copyright, they founded ‘Founder Initiative East Side’ with other artists whose images were simply copied without permission. It just goes to show that the ego of some artists is bigger than this historical statement. Restore, re-paint, touch up, preserve, leave to vandalism, start again- where do you draw the line with street art?

East Side Gallery, Berlin.

Foods of Krakow Walking Tour, Poland

Let’s be honest about tours and their guides. Short tours can be either informative and enjoyable or drop dead boring. I’ve often noticed large, passive groups in city squares, churches and galleries huddled around a guide, and whispered surreptitiously how pleased I am not to be a part of them. A tour only works when the guide is not only knowledgeable but also engaging and open. A willing smile and a readiness to share a few jokes and inside stories also goes a long way.  The group needs to be small: dialogue is essential. The Food Walking Tour of Krakow, led by our guide, Nika, ticked all the boxes.

Nika, our guide who works for Free Walkative Tours in Krakow

Nika readily admits she loves her job and that’s pretty obvious from the outset. A graduate in Slavic languages and well versed in history, Nika grew up in the area. She’ll point our her primary school along the way, and often refers to her grandmother’s cooking, her love of pickles and her passion for Polish traditional food. With her love of language and travel and her passion for food, Nika makes a wonderful guide. As luck would have it, only three participants turned up on the day of our tour, and with Nika that made four in total, giving me plenty of opportunity to ask her lots of questions along the way. Most of her groups are much bigger but the company professes to keeping group numbers under 8.

Oscypek cheese from the Tatra mountains. Salty, smoky and very addictive.

The tour begins at the Old Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. The streets bordering this area aren’t as busy or as touristy as the centre of Krakow, which makes this tour more authentic. The tour includes visits to small businesses, a hidden farmer’s market, eateries and local vodka pubs, without the tourist markup. We start with a small sample of red and white Borscht, the latter called Zurek. Zurek is made from a starter (similar to a sourdough starter) made by fermenting rye bread, or rye flour with water for three days. The soup includes potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, with optional meat, and then the starter is added towards the end.

Fermented Rye and sourdough bread, the sour starter for white Bortsch. This is a commercial batch. Home made ferments are easy to make and were also on sale at the market.

At the farmer’s market we sampled generous portions of pickles and salted, cured cabbage. At the traditional sausage and smoked meats shop, the lone carnivore in our group sampled kabana made from horse meat, as well as a slice of fat sausage made from blood studded with barley. The local cheese, Oscypek, was my favourite, a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk from the Tatra Mountains  of Poland. The cheese is pressed into beautiful wooden molds and is often served with cranberry sauce. It is a bright yellow semi-soft cheese, with the salty flavour and texture of Haloumi and the addition of smoking from forest woods.

At some point we stopped for a little Polish plum drink and then it was off to the famous Przystanek Pierogarnia corner shop, home of Krakow’s best Pierogi. People queue to eat here, though there are only a few stools inside and some wooden tables and chairs outside. We tried three types of savoury Pierogi, one sweet one stuffed with fresh blueberries and cream, and an apple pancake. I had eaten Peirogi  in fine restaurants in central Krakow before this food tour. The delicate little pierogi ruski at Prystanek were by far the best.

Beautiful woman in the Peirogi shop
The team at Przystanek. Smile!

Following Nika through the suburbs, we then land in a glittering cake shop with tempting displays of sumptious layered cakes, reminding me of my first taste of layered Polish cake as a six year old child, a very vivid food memory. We sampled some rolled poppy-seed cake: the key to a successful poppy-seed cake is the delicate flavour and  moistness of the black centre.

Polish rolled poppy-seed cake.
Lovely girl in Polish cake shop. What a great tour.
Polish cakes. Cheesecakes too.

By late afternoon, the cold was setting in, a perfect time to sample a vodka or two. We visit two bars, both very different in style. At the first stop, we downed our Vodka, after learning the most important Polish word of the tour- Na zdrowìe ( pronounced Naz- droh- vee- ay ), followed by the traditional accompaniment, a small slice of rye bread with a slice of pickled herring, onion and dill cucumber. Nika stressed the importance of clinking of glasses, whilst toasting- Na-zdrowie- and simultaneously looking directly in the eyes of all drinkers. Failing to do this will incur seven years bad luck.

Inside Bar Trojkat, Krakow. Organic Vodka in many flavours. Try the quince one.

Glowing inside and feeling more bonded, we marched on to bar number two, a great place offering organic Vodka with delicate flavours of elderflower, lemon, quince and caramel, to name a few.

Remember the toast!

Reaching for my third sample, a heavenly quince Vodka, my mind searched for that key Polish toast, but oddly, all I could think of was Perestroika or Lubie jezdzić na słoniu ( I like to ride on an elephant), crazy random words that seemed to suit the occasion, whilst meeting the direct gaze of all!

This walking tour of Crakow was run by Free Walkative Tour of Krakow. The Foods of Krakow Walking tour costs 50 PLN (13 Euro) which includes samples. Private tours can also be arranged. The tour lasts for around 2½ hours. You’ll learn a lot about Krakow, history and Polish traditions along the way. After all, food opens the door to a country’s culture.