Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Though we have yet to travel very far west of Poitiers, toward the sea, the piles of cheap oysters for sale may be the surest sign that saltwater is only a quick (high speed) train ride away. In the case of Poitiers, we could take the train in one of three directions to prime oyster country: south to Marseilles and the Mediterranean coast, west to the Bay of Biscay, or north to the English Channel. At the Saturday market, we have found oysters available from the first two locations, and since France is the largest harvester of oysters outside of the Far East, there is an ample selection in terms of size as well as origin. The South is comprised of one growing region, but the West contains four (South Brittany, Central West, Marennes-Oléron, and Arachon). Regardless of origin, oyster sizes seem to range from the size of your palm to the size of a saucer.

After being in the Midwest, living in the midst of such an abundant selection of fish and shellfish is not something that we will soon forget. The sheer variety, not to mention the nonchalance with which the fishmongers clean, prep, package, and sell this seafood makes it seem dream-like. For normal people like us, the reality of preparing and cooking fish is not a fairytale: there are a lot of new rules and a LOT of ways you can screw up (cooking it too long, not cooking it long enough, not knowing how to open the shells, not using the meat in time...remember the soupe de poissons disaster?). Nevertheless, we only passed up the oyster vendors a few times before we bought our first dozen La Rochelle oysters, a little over a month ago.
Since the oysters are so cheap and plentiful, we knew we would be eating them often. So, as soon as we got home from the market we went looking for a proper oyster knife. A good oyster knife is fairly dull, short and stiff with a thick handle. The local highfalutin kitchen supply store (think Williams Sonoma with a tenth of the floor space) sells lots of nice of knives and other kitchen tools, and they had a pretty serious oyster knife for sale. Too bad it was almost $40. We weren't going to have anyone over for dinner that we needed to impress, so we went to the grocery store and got a $6 knock-off (the bottom one in the picture). Since the holidays are when most oysters are consumed, the fancy kitchen store decided to stock a more moderately price $10 knife (the upper one in the pictures) that was a big improvement over our previous one (note the much thicker blade).
After watching a few youtube videos about opening oysters, Jeff went to work. The first one took around 5 minutes, with lots of grunting and swear words. Once he figured out a systematic, albeit still slow, way of opening them, the rest went much faster. This method is called the sidedoor method, and is better if your knife is sharper and thinner. The upgraded knife was stiff enough to open the oysters in the traditional manner, by attacking the hinge first and then working your way around the shell and cutting the adductor muscle that holds the top of the shell closed.

Wanting to truly taste the oysters, we decided to eat them raw along with some other hors d'oeuvres. Besides some toasted slices of baguette, there was butter with shallots, lemons, avocados, three kinds of goat cheese, and roasted beets.
The picture at the top of this post was our second batch of oysters that we decided to bake in the oven with bacon and leeks. It turned out really well, the creaminess of the sauce combined with the saltiness of the oysters and bacon was really tasty.

Of course the oyster experience is not complete (at least not in France) without wine (dry, white) or champagne. Guess where we went to get the wine. Normally we go to William to ask for wine that breaks the stereotypes of what certain wines are supposed to go with, but this time, he urged us to go the more traditional route for this most traditional of French meals.

While France has been harvesting oysters for hundreds of years and has a lot of regulations in place ensuring the sustainability of the oyster beds, there have been two cases of infections (one, and two) in the last few months which are wreaking havoc on oyster production in the Atlantic. Hopefully, the areas of oyster production in France not hit by these maladies will be able to meet demand. Actually, the slump caused by the infections has brought about a surge in harvesting, which will temporarily result in a surplus here. More (and cheaper) oysters for us! So we will definitely be trying them again.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy New Year from ARAD

New and interesting posts are soon to come on topics such as:
-strange old buildings of Poitiers
-gluten-free in Poitiers
-weekending in Bordeaux

In the mean time, we're starting the new year off the right way...

(long-haired and in love)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

French Cyclocross

The weather has been better than expected here, at least better than we'd been led to believe. For the last week, the sun has come out for a few hours almost everyday and I have been taking advantage with frequent bike rides. On Saturday I took a favorite route west from Poitiers through Sanxay, Vasles, Latillé, and Montreuil-Bonnin. The route is notable for its smooth roads, relatively flat terrain, and low traffic. While passing through Latillé, I noticed signs for a cyclocross race the following day at the nearby Chateau de la Chèze.

I was hoping for good weather so I could compare the French version of cyclocross with the race I saw in Chicago. Of course, cyclocross is more interesting in adverse weather (think sharp, slippery turns, limited visibility, and lots of mud), but in order to watch I needed to ride my bike the 30 km to Latillé, something that would have been considerably less interesting in the rain. It turned out to be ideal: 50 degrees and mostly sunny.

Chateau de la Chèze was not hard to find. This is partly because Latillé is not very big, but also because, as soon as I got close, I could hear an announcer's voice booming from some loudspeakers.

The announcer was also the first thing I noticed that distinguished this French cyclocross race from the one in Chicago. He essentially never stopped talking during the 60 minute-race, and he reminded me less of a sports-commentator than an auctioneer. He was providing commentary at such a rapid pace (and at such volume) to the tiny crowd I couldn't help but laugh.

The race was situated on the grounds of the Chateau de la Chèze, which dates back to the seventeenth century (and was built on the site of an older castle), and the course was truly breathtaking. The ribbons and flags marking the course wound back and forth across the immense grounds, dipping into the valley and disappearing into the distance before winding back up the hill to the chateau.
There were nearly 60 competitors on the course, with multiple divisions competing simultaneously. The spectators seemed to be mostly friends and family; this was also true of the race in Chicago, probably because it takes an intimate knowledge of the cyclists to figure out who is competing with whom and who is winning which division.

Eventually, the speed of the announcements picked up, and I knew the race must be nearing a climactic end. The two leaders in the fastest division were within a few yards of each other as they went down into the valley for the last lap. As they approached the last turn before the straightaway along the water (look in the upper left quadrant of the above photo) they came upon a slower racer from a lower division. The leader was held up momentarily waiting for his chance to pass, then when there was finally room, the cyclist chasing him jumped into the gap and passed both the leader and the lower division cyclist. He held that tenuous lead for the next kilometer and took the win!

It was a pretty exciting finish and satisfying close to my first French cyclocross experience. And then, after the race, as I was preparing to head home, I noticed this little cute bike-wash station near the castle wall:
Very civilized!

Monday, December 22, 2008

You can't win 'em all...

As evidenced by our recent run of "nyah-nyah" posts, we have been perpetually surprised by the tastiness of things that we've never tried before: duck fat, foie gras, roasted beets, cured donkey sausage (not to be confused with ass sausage--see below), vin chaud, and aged goat cheese among other things. But we feel it is our duty, dear Reader, to admit that we've had some failures, too. Yes, we have tried a few things that someone with decorum would describe as "acquired tastes" (ones we have clearly not yet acquired).

The first of the missteps occurred when Jeff went to the grocery store looking for sausage for a meal of hors d'œuvre. Occasionally, we make a whole meal out of grazing on assorted cured sausages, cheeses, roasted beets, fresh pears and apples, cornichons, artichoke hearts, french bread (for Jeff), and corn cakes (for Rebecca). So, Jeff decided to get some andouille sausage. The concentric circles made it looked a little different than the cajun andouille he had seen back home, but always the adventurous fellow, he got it anyway.

He brought the sausage home and opened it, and was immediately struck with a strange smell....a vaguely barnyard smell. And as anyone who has visited a barnyard knows, the main component of this smell is manure; pig manure in this case (North Carolinians will appreciate the special nastiness associated with the smell of pig farms). Turns out French andouille (specifically the andouille de Guémené that Jeff bought) is made entirely of *gags* pig intestines and rectums; this would be called chitterlings sausage in the U.S. In any case, the smell was unsettling, and only got worse when he tried to cook it. I opted not to have any.

Jeff has tried his share of offal, from chicken gizzards and sheep's head, to sweetbreads, and cow tongue (including delicious cow-tongue tacos in Chicago), but this was a little much. In a final blow to his ego, we discovered that andouille also means 'fool' in French.

Another recent mishap concerned an impetuous decision to buy a bottle of soupe de poissons (puréed fish soup) from the Saturday market. I remember eating something like this back when I was in France as a tweenager. I remember it tasting good, kind of like a French version of New England clam chowder. So I persuaded Jeff (who, despite his aforementioned adventurousness, is always a little tentative when it comes to things of the sea because of his land-locked upbringing) to buy this:
We decided to heat it up, and to add leeks, carrots, and spinach. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it wasn't. It was VERY fishy, so fishy that Jeff "the Iron Stomach" was only able to eat a few bites. When someone says "something smells fishy," it was that kind of fishy.

It's a good thing I also made a cornbread to go with it or Jeff might have starved.

I'm still not exactly sure what went wrong with the soupe de poissons...should we have mixed it with something else? Maybe a strong soup base like cream of potato? Or something acidic like tomato? Well, the "leftovers" (can you call them "leftovers" if you didn't eat any to begin with?) are burning a hole through our fridge, so if anyone has any suggestions, speak now or we'll have to throw them out...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Le Vin Chaud

After trying glühwein in Germany, and becoming part of William's efforts to increase the visibility of vin chaud in Poitiers, we decided we needed to find out more about this winter beverage. While the Germans often add liquor to their glühwein, the French generally avoid this with vin chaud, perhaps with good reason. There is some risk associated with consuming glühwein: we were warned that if you inhale through the nose while sipping (schnapps-fortified) glühwein, you are liable to gag, not a pleasant thought.

While vin chaud is not available for consumption at the market due to problems with teen alcohol consumption (though it is available in bottles at ambient temperature), nearly all the local restaurants have their own version for sale. In order to complete our study of vin chaud in time (vin chaud dies out soon after Christmas) we started by concocting our own batch.

Attempt #1:
1 bottle Beaujolais red wine
grated nutmeg
powdered cinnamon
orange slices

We added all the ingredients except sugar and brought to a boil (whoops) because now that our stove is fixed, it heats up unexpectedly fast. Everything boiled for too long and it turned out a little bitter. We had to add more sugar than we would have like to make it palatable. We decided we needed to do a little more research.

Perhaps one of the local restaurants could help, so we headed over to La Gazette (which has the same owner as La Serurrerie). The vin chaud came in glass mugs with orange slices, cinnamon sticks and (to our surprise) also came with star anise. The flavor was excellent, subtle and not too sweet. Armed with this knowledge we returned to the kitchen.

Attempt #2
1 bottle Haut-Poitou (local) red wine
250ml water
1 tbl. vin chaud spice mix we picked up at the outdoor market (cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg)
cinnamon stick
star anise
one packet of orange flavored black tea

We heated the wine/water mixture along with the star anise and spice mix until just under boiling. Then we removed the star anise and added the remaining ingredients except the sugar and let the whole mixture steep for 20 minutes. Finally, we added sugar to taste. It was fantastic, the orange tea gave it a very nice flavor and was soothing on the throat, and the anise was also a great addition. Armed with this success, we went to see the expert: William.
A sign at Le Fruit Defendu: "We support VCPC--Mulled wine is not a crime"

We had to stop by Le fruit defendu to pick up wine to go with our gourmet weekend meals (First, Seafood and Chicken Paella, followed by Braised oxtails w/ Spanish chorizo). We queried him to see if we were missing any secret ingredients, and apparently we were not. He promised he would send us some recipes from some "trusted friends," and we will see if there are any procedural changes we can make to improve things further. But until then, tonight's iteration:

Attempt #3
1 bottle Haut-Poitou (local) red wine
300ml water
zest of clementine
clementine sections
orange juice
cinnamon stick
star anise
one packet of orange flavored black tea
1 tbl. aforementioned spice mix (cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg blend)

Combine first 8 ingredients and heat. Once the mixture is hot, add the tea and spice mix, and let steep for 10 minutes. Add sugar to taste.

The seafood paella and accompanying wine (above and left, respectively) turned out wonderfully. The third iteration of the vin chaud turned out ok. We are eagerly awaiting William's recipes and will probably also try Kristi's suggestion of mixing wine and cider. American style cider is hard to find here; the cider here is mostly carbonated & alcoholic which bears only a passing resemblance to the cider sold at apple orchards in the U.S. We are open to other suggestions (even from our readers in Ukraine and Austria)... let us know!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Hearing about the first snowfall in Illinois has made me miss snow a little bit. I still have some heavy-duty winter clothes I haven't been able to wear yet here in Poitiers. But then, a winter weather advisory for Chicago brought me back to reality.

So, there's no snow, and the ice rink in front of L'Hotel de Ville (City Hall) melts once in a while, but it could be worse. Since the weather does not seem especially Christmasy, the town has done its best to put everyone in the holiday mood. There is an outdoor Christmas Market (with rides and ice rink) in front of L'Hotel de Ville, and most of the shops were open this past Sunday despite the French ban on opening on Sunday.

The shops along the street where we live seem to be doing pretty good business (what recession?). However, to prevent you from having to go home periodically to do those daily, mundane things (like listening to Christmas music, eating sugary gluten, or riding your pony), the town has cheerfully provided these amenities to improve your shopping experience.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, there are speakers playing Christmas music conveniently located every 100 ft or so along the pedestrian streets where most of the shops are located.

The speaker is the cylinder hanging just under the right side of the balcony.
There are also vendors on nearly every corner selling "Chi-Chis" (also called "Churros"--long thin crispy batons of dough), along with pretty much anything else you can put Nutella on: waffles, crêpes, and doughnuts (which they call "beignets," but bear little resemblance to New Orleans-style beignets). Jeff decided to opt for a crêpe with "chocolat maison" (house chocolate--a darker, less sweet blend than Nutella)

and Rebecca (who is gluten-free) had to be content just to watch as they were being made.

And, for the adults, in case the kids get too much Nutella and can't stand still, they can ride around on one of those donkeys (or pygmy horses?--any animal experts reading?), spin around on the carousel, or fall down on the ice for a while until they calm down.

Another crucial component of the French holiday season--especially for the adults--is vin chaud (mulled wine); vin chaud is so important in fact, that we will be dedicating an entire post to the topic...

so, until then, stay warm and stay tuned.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Duck, Duck,...Fat

I first took note of the duck fat for sale here at the farmer's market. Frequently, adjacent to the saucisson man, there is a van parked, selling all manner of duck- and goose-related products, whole and in pieces, including foie gras and duck fat. I was first attracted by the foie gras, not because I was particularly fascinated by it (although it's difficult not to be a little fascinated, a ban on foie gras was only recently repealed in Chicago), but because of the shear selection; it feels particularly illicit to be browsing for foie gras. I'd never seen so many varieties of such a product in one place. Tucked in among the jars were a few labeled "graisse de canard," and maybe it was that phrase that intrigued me: grease of duck.

I was little tentative about purchasing the graisse for the first few weeks, not sure of what I would use it for, how long it would last, what the storage restrictions would be, etc. Luckily for my taste buds, Rebecca threw caution into the wind and decided to just buy some and figure out the details later. Needless to say, it is delicious, and can be used in all manner of dishes. It is primarily used in the Southwest of France in dishes like cassoulet, duck confit, and foie gras. But the options don't end there. In reality, versatility (relatively speaking) is its most interesting quality.

Apparently, duck fat gives sauteed vegetables a hint of savory flavor, perhaps similar to MSG. Substitute some duck fat for butter in pie and tart crusts, mix duck fat with some blanched and pounded garlic for Gascony Butter (to use as soup flavoring or on toast; variations can be made with shallots and red wine), fry duck skin in duck fat for fritons de canard (though this culinary term can also apply to various renditions), and all roasted and fried potatoes benefit tremendously from being cooked in duck fat.

Duck fat also has advantages from a technical and nutritional point of view. For instance, the "smoke point" of duck fat, the point at which the oil begins to smoke and break down, is above both butter and extra virgin olive oil, though below high quality extra virgin olive oil. Cooking in fat above its smoke point will impart an unpleasant taste to the food. Here is a chart of the smoke points of various fats.

Besides being a little easier to cook with, duck fat also has less saturated fat than butter. Perhaps this fact, along with the health benefits of red wine (in the form of Resveratrol), has contributed to Gascony having the longest life expectancy in France, the French Paradox. On the other hand, with a number of sites trying to debunk this theory, the whole thing (really, both sides of the issue) starts to sound like a conspiracy theory. But would you rather die from a McDonald's-induced heart attack, or a red wine and duck confit heart attack?

The real question for the English speakers reading this blog is "where do I get it?" It is available online, but shipping costs make it pretty expensive. You might try the local farmer's market or butcher. If you live in a more rural area, maybe your local duck hunter can help. Ducks are very fatty, and cooking a duck without removing some of the fat leads to long cooking times. You can ask them for some of the extra fat; their duck cooks faster (and gets crispier) and you get duck fat to render. Hooray!

Monday, December 8, 2008

A nos lecteurs/lectrices Francophones--Merci!

***mise à jour***

-Zkark, LO, et William: merci pour vos id
ées, nous vous tiendrons au courant!

-Si vous n'avez pas encore fait une suggestion....n'hésitez pas
à nous laisser un petit message (et corriger notre français, si vous en voulez)!


Vous êtes Poitevin? Vous n'êtes pas? Quand même, nous avons besoin de votre aide...

videmment, nous adorons Poitou-Charentes, mais c'est le moment d'explorer d'autres régions de la France, n'est ce pas? Il ne nous reste plus que sept ou huit mois de notre année à l'étranger.

où aller? Nous ne savons pas, et c'est pour ça que nous vous demandons de nous faire vos suggestions. Quand vous prenez les vacances, vous allez où? Où sont vos endroits préférées?

Quelques détails : nous n'avons pas une voiture, et nous préférons ne pas conduire.
Nous aimons voyager, manger, explorer, bouger, rencontrer des gens and des expériences nouvelles. Nous aimons faire du velo, marcher, être actif, nager (sauf s'il fait beau!), les festivals du vin, du fromage, du cinéma (même du graisse de canard, si il y en a). Nous pourrions prendre un train ou un avion, selon la distance et le prix, mais nous ne sommes pas riches! Aucun doute que Monacco est trés jolie, mais il faut être économique dans nos choix...

Quick translation:
Tell us where to go on vacation in France. We like to ride bikes, swim, go to wine festivals, cheese festivals, film festivals (duck fat festivals, if there are any). And we're a little poor.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

La Marché

We have mentioned the Saturday market here in Poitiers before, but in the past, we mostly offered photos of our shopping hauls and brief descriptions of some of the vendors. Technically, the market (the building you see in the background) is open 6 days a week. On any given weekday, up to 1/4 of the vendors are open--these are the businesses that lease permanent stalls inside the building; they clearly pay more, but they also have the convenience of not having to worry about how the weather will affect their sales. On Saturday, all of these indoor vendors are open, in addition to the numerous outdoor vendors who set up tents outside around the market.

One caveat...the "normal" supermarkets here are no joke. They may lack the aisle dedicated to Asian and South American foods, but the selection of meats, cheeses, pastas, olives, wines, and bottled water would put any supermarket in the United States to shame. In the United States, for instance, European-style meats (pancetta, coppa, salami, saucisson sec) are usually industrially-farmed reproductions of inferior quality. US cheeses are similar; they are either imported (in which case they risk sitting too long in their packaging due to cost and over-niche-yness) or they are inferior domestic reproductions. Perhaps this is because the American meat and cheese industry remains stalled where American wine was 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the financial crisis may have dealt a serious blow to the people able and willing to afford well conceived meats and cheeses. Also, France doesn't always pasteurize their cheese, something else that won't happen (legally) in the U.S.

The route we take to the market means one of the first vendors we see is the saucisson man. He usually has a dozen or more varieties of cured sausage and is happy to let you sample them. So far, we have tried: natur (plain), goat cheese, fig, blueberry, blue cheese, chestnut, cepes (mushrooms), donkey, duck, and fennel. We buy them three at a time because they make a perfect snack with cheese, olive oil, cornichons, and artichoke hearts.

Since Poitiers is only about 1.5 hours from the west coast of France (the Bay of Biscay), there is always plenty of seafood at the Saturday market: prawns, salmon, swordfish, monkfish, cod, and other fish we haven't translated yet, as well as shellfish like oysters and scallops. For the most part, the seafood is whole and/or unshelled, and can be cleaned upon request.

The picture just above here is of the seafood man shelling and cleaning the scallops we were planning to prepare for dinner. First we picked them out, then we paid, and then we watched as he deftly pried open the shells, and one after another, cut the scallops free and cleaned and rinsed them. It was truly an amazing thing to watch, and we even considered ordering more scallops just so that we could watch him work a little longer.

We are always used to thinking of seafood (and really everything: cheese, beef, sausage, fruit) by weight, but in reality that is a little misleading. Here they often ask you how many you want, or in the case of cheese and sausage they hold the knife up to the item where they are going to cut and ask for your approval. Occasionally, this leads you to spend a little more than you planned, especially in the case of a certain 45 €/kg aged goat cheese...the aged goat cheese vendor has become the bane of our existence, because we are, in perfect honesty, unable to resist him. We have taken to turning away abruptly whenever we get the slightest glimpse his cheese cart--but this is made incredibly difficult by the fact that he sets up in a different place each week. He is a tricky, tricky fellow and his cheese is really, really good.

The butchers usually specialize in either poultry, pork, or beef and lamb. Besides offering their specialty meat, they frequently also offer cooked dishes (someone who does this would be called a traiteur)--meatloafs, salads, and other cold dishes featuring their meats--and may even have wine to accompany them. The most popular pork butcher is Yves Henaud, where a half dozen guys man the 30 ft counter.

For the first time this week, we arrived at the market with a grocery list based on two recipes we had already decided to make: (1) spiced scallops served on braised red cabbage with pancetta and (2) roquefort-stuffed pork chops. In one sense, this made our trip more difficult, since we had to work harder to stay focused, and make sure that we got everything we were going to need (remember, none of the grocery stores are going to be open on Sunday, so forethought is required). On the other hand, going in with a plan means that the trip takes about half as long, and also that we don't end up with things that we aren't going to be able to use before they get overripe. Today, the only novelty food items we ended up with were free ones, from some of the vendors who have developed an affection for The Two Americans--today, the freebies included: sausages, cherry tomatoes, bay leaves, ginger root, and fresh spinach. It was a good day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Berlin...Part II

Despite a forecast of wet and cold weather, Jefe decided to take his bike to Berlin. The transport system has good coverage and is efficient; one 2 € ticket gives you access to the S-Bahn (like the 'El' in Chicago), the U-Bahn (like the subway in London or New York), and the trams and buses for up to two hours. But taking the S-Bahn or U-Bahn only allows you to see things at one place or another, not in between. Since Berlin is spread out and relatively flat, a bike is the way to go, and Berliners seem to agree.

Even during our stay, with the lousy weather, the vast network of bike paths and bike lanes was consistently full of cyclists, who rode everything from older racing bikes to cargo bikes. Sometimes the bike paths are denoted only by differently colored bricks on the sidewalk, and so it quickly becomes second nature to look both ways before crossing a bike path.

On the bike, Jefe was able to explore places that were a little out-of-the-way, like the architectural neighborhood of Hansaviertel.
He also spent one afternoon checking into a few art galleries in the Mitte area of central Berlin. Most of these would be considered avant-garde, or just bizarre. The Zak Branicka gallery was showing a movie called A Summer's Tale, a fairy-tale by Katarzyna Kozyra about midget gardeners that begins idyllic and then turns ugly. The same building housed the Galerie Volker Diehl, showing work by Herbert Volkmann. The show was titled Die Morphinisten (The Morphine Addicts), and syringes featured heavily in most of the artwork.

For more entertaining entertainment, we went to see Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (with opening band The Miserable Rich) at the Columbia Music Hall. They are from Glasgow and musically, they fall somewhere between Leonard Cohen and The Beauty Shop. They were very good, and we were surprised by the large Sunday night crowd. Maybe they have a cult following in Berlin. We were in a hurry to get home and didn't see any CD's for sale, but we will definitely look for something online.

Before the show, we stopped at Atame Tapas Bar for wine and finger food. One gem we found were these dates which were stuffed with almonds, wrapped in bacon, and then roasted. They were fantastic: salty, sweet, soft, and crunchy. The next night we returned to Nosh (where we ate twice while in Berlin in December 2007). The food is simple, but delicious, roast lamb shoulder with ratatouille and goose leg with mustard sauce and crispy potatoes. Also of note were the salmon brunch at Cream, the cold dahl salad and warm vegetarian paella at Saladette und Freunde, and the rum raisin Rittersport chocolate bars (not available in the US).

The Alexanderplatz was also buzzing with activity. The
Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) and carnival encompassed the area of three or four city blocks. For everyone, there were sausages, pretzels, crepes, candy and fries. For the kids, there were numerous rides: a ferris wheel, various carousels, and a rollercoaster. And for the adults there was Glühwein (mulled wine with rum and amaretto).

In Berlin, people drink on the street. They drink on the subway and on the metro. They drink on the bus and the tram. Bottle caps blanket the city, smashed empty bottles glint in the sun. And although Germans are most frequently associated with beer, glühwein is the beverage of choice from the beginning of November until the end of January. What? It's 4am, and you're out of
glühwein? Try the pizza place next door. Chances are, they've got some.

Poitiers has mulled wine too, but here there is an issue of decorum, one which seems to have been resolved in Germany back when it was still called Prussia. This year Poitiers has banned the sale of vin chaud at the Christmas Market. This is has caused a small furor, and our friend William, the local Caviste, has started an informal petition
(translation) to reverse this development. Du courage William!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Berlin...Part I

After Rebecca's students took the TOEIC, we decided to go to Berlin for a long weekend. We took the TGV from Poitiers directly to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (very convenient) and flew into Berlin's Tegel airport. All in all, it took around 6 hours to get from our apartment to our hotel in Berlin.

We visited Berlin (among several other European cities) in late December of 2007 and really liked the undercurrent of chaos that permeates the city, especially the eastern side.
This chaotic energy is most notable through the pervasive graffiti and occasional trash in the streets. Poitiers, with its nightly trash collection and frequent sidewalk and street cleaning, seems anal in comparison. While we aren't particularly fascinated by the graffiti (or the trash), these seem to be manifestations of a ubiquitous creativity than can be hard to find in wealthier, more established cities like Paris or Boston. There always seems to be something going on, or something for sale, that you would be hard-pressed to see replicated anywhere else.

We stayed in the Fredreichshain area in the eastern part of the city. The area is more out of the way (and thus less frequented by tourists) than areas to the west, but with the all-encompassing S/U-Bahn system, this isn't much of a problem. The area is full of interesting cafes, used clothing stores, vintage record shops, streetwear outlets, and boutiques by independent designers.

Since we don't speak any German, we had to rely on websites like and to give us a head start on food, movie and music happenings. Through these two sites, we were able to find Thai food that was as spicy as we're used to (a review mentioned dishes are "a tad too hot for the European palate," a good sign), as well as good movies in English with German subtitles (Moviemento and Babylon-Kreuzberg are two theaters that often have English-language films).

We also found a film festival titled "Around the World in 14 films" showing at the Babylon-Mitte Cinema. We were able to attend two of the films: Silent Light and Garage.

Part II coming soon...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bike Apostle

This is an article about the bike shop where we bought Rebecca's bike in Poitiers.
George Apostolou: "I don't sell price, I sell service."

Published in Centre-Presse November 21, 2008
by Laurence Chegaray

He was an eco-freak before it was cool. George Apostolou founded the Cyclamen workshop in 1977 with two associates. They were convinced that the bicycle was the future of mankind and that it could be the heart of their sustainable model. The associates have left, but George is still there. "At the time, we were located on rue Arsene-Orillard. The customer base was strictly word of mouth," he recalled. The clients would stop by the shop and find George at the back of a dingy workshop measuring 12 feet by 40 feet.

Getting Serious
George wasn't derailed. "I believe that my original project has found meaning. The bicycle has become a serious mode of transportation." To see a cyclist in the hilly city of Poitiers no longer surprises anyone. Cyclamen moreover provided more than a few cycles for Velo Campus bikes since the start of Cap'Velo. "The municipality has moved the bike forward in the city."

The Everyday Person's Bike
Twelve short years ago, Cyclamen moved. The workshop was reestablished on boulevard Pont-Achard. Its specialty is not high-end racing bikes or the mountain bikes of champions, but the bikes of "normal people," with two French and Italian brands: Gitane and Bianchi. "I have utilitarian and leisure bikes. Besides, I don't sell every available accessory," jokes the good-natured man with his greek accent, among whose shop, on the contrary carries just about everything bicycle related. "I am a big collector of rare parts!" When you can't find something somewhere else or a piece is missing from a bike bought in a super-store, you come to track it down here." Frequently, someone calls me after having looked everywhere for an anti-derailment collar of the right diameter. I have it." He has sold electric bicycles for five years. "It's the same phenomenon as mountain biking, everyone wants to do it, but some are heavy and require assistance." George shrugs his shoulders. But that doesn't count as cycling!

Monday, November 24, 2008 gift guide

The holidays are here. We can tell because they have hung Christmas lights in our street. They have also affixed really strange cylindrical stereo speakers to the sides of the buildings on our street, which play insipid pop music all day long.  The one under our window mysteriously broke immediately after installation, which we didn't have anything to do with, but didn't cry over either.  The other speakers quickly followed suit.  Perhaps they were installed incorrectly. Perhaps the technicians got bored, or the neighborhood revolted?  We don't know.

So anyway, we are not big on gifts, but we have heard that other people might be. With that in mind, this is our holiday gift guide. 

First up, Rebecca received her complimentary contributor's copy of the latest installment of the journal Studies in Symbolic Interaction. Her essay entitled "Dialogics of Discomfort: Race, Roles, and Performance" was chosen for publication six months ago. Jeff has been reading some of the other essays and found them very interesting. Particularly the essay on Lonnie Athens' theory of violentization; how individuals become conditioned to use violence to resolve social situations, and how this theory might be expanded to larger population groups. It you know a loved one who would benefit from discussions of race (esp. Native American, African-American, or Persian), quilts, the development of violent criminals and violent societies, and the power of the mind in overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder the 31st volume of Studies in Symbolic Interaction may be just the thing you're looking for.  Only $110! (sheesh)

For someone who is more aesthetically minded, might we suggest some handmade furniture? Our friend Trevor, who lives in California, has completed another superior piece (he also made our hinged coffee table--currently in storage--with a little help from Jeff).

I like the contrasting color of the wedges in the tenons. Overall, everything seems to fit together exceptionally well (the style is Chinese, which we think means there were no screws, nails or other artificial fasteners used), and the instances of intentionally non-right angles here and there are interesting. In the email accompanying this photo, he mentioned that, though hard to see, the depth and width both vary slightly from top to bottom. He didn't mention a price, but we think he should ask for at least enough to offset the cost of his rent for the time it took to make it...$3600.

The economic crisis has hit everyone (even the french cafe culture is in trouble) and so we also have something for the budget-conscious. The Theorem of the Day is designed to make groundbreaking theorems accessible through clear explanations and examples using real world situations. For 2009, there will also be a special edition calendar available titled Theorems by Women Mathematicians. This will feature two of our favorite mathematicians (and really nice people): Carla Savage and Sylvie Corteel and their Polynomial Coprimality Theorem.

So, if you are the type of person who plans on buying stuff, wrapping it up, transporting it somewhere, and then giving it to someone else, we hope that this guide has made your life easier. Make good decisions and keep checking in with us here at arideaday.  We'll remain in our cave throughout the holiday season occasionally venturing out for supplies and, of course, fresh blog material for your reading pleasure. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mushrooms...and Wine

Ok, the last post was basically a maintenance post, just keeping everyone informed until something happened worth rhaposidizing. Well, one of the items in our shipment of gluten-free foods was lasagna noodles. In a fit of energy, we decided to make the lasagna first. And (although those who know us will not be surprised) we decided not to settle for a simple lasagna, but to take it to a level worthy of the ingredients available to us here in France.

We've been trying to maintain a healthy diet and not to succumb too often to the secret of French cooking (butter, butter, and more butter), so we decided to included some zucchini we already had, some mushrooms (not as yet bought), some "fresh" cheese (the closest available thing to Ricotta cheese) and basil, basil, basil. Some elaborations:

It's mushroom season around here. While riding, Jeff will frequently see cars parked on the sides of roads near the forests. When he squints, he sees faintly visible, crouched figures creeping through the undergrowth, poking the ground with sticks, in search of fresh fungi. Equally frequently, there are signs posted forbidding the gathering of mushrooms. Of course, they are available at the farmer's market (in abundance), and at the local supermarket, which has been hit-or-miss; sometimes there are three or four varieties, and sometimes only one (typically the Girolles from the United States). Yesterday, there was only one, but today there were three varieties, a good sign that the new ones would be fresh. Jeff was able to sniff the available selection with The Nose (pictured above) and decided on the mushrooms with the overwhelming odor of earthiness. So we got a handful of trompettes de la mort (literally: trumpets of death) or black trumpets.

Once all the ingredients were assembled, including the aforementioned basil (x3: homemade basil-and-garlic infused olive oil, dried basil, and fresh basil), we assembled our masterpiece.
The noodles took the most effort, as they like to stick together--always be sure to put a bit of olive oil in the boiling water, and to rinse the noodles in cold water after cooking! Here's our recipe:

1-2 tbs olive oil
3 cloves of garlic (chopped)
2 small red onions (chopped)
2 slices of cooked bacon (chopped)
2 cans crushed tomato
~1 pint white button mushrooms (sliced)
handful of fancy-schmancy mushrooms (chopped)
bay leaf (if you got it!)

[first saute the garlic and onion in the oil,
then add and steam mushrooms,
then add tomato, bacon, and bay leaf]

slice up the zukes into wafers (they will form individual layers like the pasta)

usually lasagna calls for ricotta, but we're in France, so we improvised a cheese sauce out of fromage blanc, grated romano, gruyere, basil, rosemary, white wine, and a tbs of gluten-free flour

Precooked 'em for about 6 minutes, and spent another 10 trying to unstick them. They turned out fine, though :)

So, we lightly greased the casserole dish, layered the bottom with noodles, smoothed a layer of tomato sauce on, followed by a layer of zucchini, then cheese mixture, more noodles, tomato, etc. We topped it off with a sprinkle of romano and dried basil...

...with a spectacular result!

To go with this increasingly gourmet lasagna, we had visited the local caviste (wine vendor) Le Fruit Defendu, just down the street from our apartment. The shopkeeper always gives very good recommendations. Besides suggesting wine that goes well with food (and we always tell him what we're having tonight, and which spices we're using), the wine is always interesting and tends to break away from the flavors traditionally associated with its type. In the case of our little lasagna, he suggested Pechigo, an organic red wine grown near the Pyrenees in the south of France.

We can't wait to eat the leftovers tomorrow
(probably after we get home,
exhausted from the farmer's market).

Berlin in one week!!


We found a french website that delivers gluten free food and just got our first package today. It includes bread mix, lasagne, cereal, and snack bars. To make sure that it got delivered in a timely manner, we went to the hardware store and bought address numbers to put near our door so delivery personnel could find our building. The latest delivery went off without a hitch, which is promising. Prior to this addition, you had to look at adjacent buildings. Most adjacent building are lacking numbers, except for our neighbors (a law office) who have a number plate that looks like it was salvaged from the Titanic due to its severe oxidation which makes it nearly impossible to decipher.

Rebecca's students are starting to get anxious about the TOEIC exam, which is next week. She is handling a few extra practice sessions for her students. After the exam, we are going to Berlin for a few days. We will probably revisit a few of the places we liked when we were in Berlin in December 2007. This includes Cafe V (a vegetarian restaurant), the used clothing stores in Prenzlauerberg, and a few movie theaters that reliably show movies in the original language (english or french) with german subtitles.

The farmer's market stills holds things to discover. We've found our favorite vendors in a few categories: pork products, aged goat cheese, organic vegetables, cured sausage, and beef & lamb products. We may try the oysters brought in from the Bay of Biscay (about 1.5 hours away) in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to read a Michelin map

While there are cycling guides available for France (mostly in English), most of the first-hand accounts online suggest that getting the appropriate Michelin map is more useful, and cheaper, than getting a cycling-specific guide. All local bookstores carry a wide variety of the Michelin maps. Since I'm relatively new to the area, and the weather is getting colder, I probably won't be going hundreds of miles in one day. Thus, I opted for Michelin #322, a single-sided map covering two départements (Deux-Sèvres and Vienne) within the Poitou-Charentes region with a scale of 1 cm to 1.5 km (or 1:150,000).

If you are going to be using a particular map a lot, perhaps for touring, I would suggest cutting it up into pieces that fit into whatever map-holder you will be using (thus the choice of a singled-sided map). I also numbered my map pieces so I can find the adjacent map sections. It is much easier to exchange two small pieces of paper than to pull out an entire map and refold it so the area of interest is displayed.

Besides all the pretty colors, the maps are packed with useful information. The most mentioned aspect of these maps in relation to cycling is the green line. I won't attempt to outdo the linked post in terms of rhetorical elegance, but I don't agree that the green line is always the Holy Grail of cycling (at least around here, maybe the Alps are different).

For the uninitiated, the green line represents a scenic route, which can mean several different things depending on the terrain: a winding road through, into, or out of a valley, or as is more often the case in Poitou-Charentes, simply a straight, flat road through a forest.  On my rides, I try and seek out the varied terrain and beautiful views of valleys in the area (the Vienne River valley is especially rural and hilly), but I'm less interested in a straight, flat road, even if it is through a forest.

One other consideration when choosing a route is the amount of automobile traffic. The roads in red are part of the high-traffic national road system. Recently, we read an article in the local paper about how dangerous these roads can be.  One particular local road (N147, shown in the second picture of this post) has resulted in nineteen auto-related deaths in the past three years.  The roads in yellow are for more local traffic. When leaving Poitiers, I stick to the thick white roads. They are used enough to be well-paved and well-marked, but traffic is limited to people coming and going from nearby small towns. Once you are 15-20 km outside of Poitiers, the yellow roads become low-traffic, and are often very well maintained.

Of course, as a bonus, Michelin maps denote all kinds of landmarks that are worth checking out, from chateaus, abbeys, and churches to sites of ancient battles and Roman ruins. The sites are also conveniently graded with a series of stars (0-3 stars) telling whether they are merely worth visiting if you happen to be nearby, or are worth a visit in their own right.