Friday, July 31, 2009

Weekly Roundup

In theory I really enjoy sifting through yard sales, flea markets and antiques fairs, but in reality it is hot, dusty and tiring work. But no more! Vicky's Yard Sale, a site run by, unsurprisingly, Vicky, an artist based out of Los Angeles, takes the work out of it. She posts items on her blog, you either email her with your best offer or pay the posted price (see? just like a yard sale), and the item is shipped to you. Her collection tends towards art deco, but not exclusively. I personally have got my eye on this set of Edelstein plates, this brass creamer set, and this hungry bird Lenox vase. Items are updated weekly.

I love to complain vociferously about the lack of social grace I encounter. Not that I am the next coming of Emily Post, but I do feel quite strongly about the frequent and unabashed use of please, thank you and excuse me. Luckily, Social Primer cares even more than I do about manners, so he can rant for me, thus sparing my friends and family. From what to do with your silverware to how to be a good houseguest to how to double-book successfully, Social Primer has you covered.

As a food lover I read a ton of food blogs. I have a short list that I find to be consistently appealing both visually and gustatorially and I make a point to check them on a regular basis. I've recently added Lottie + Doof to that list. The blog is written by a Chicagoan who delights in food and food fueled social gatherings. His photos are gorgeous and quite cutting edge considering the subject, and I find his recipes delightful.

And, at long last, I've unpacked my teacups that my mother passed along to me last time I was in California.

Let the tea parties begin!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Peek Inside...

I saw something about a photo exhibition recently that consists of a series of photos of the inside of various people's refrigerators. It got me thinking about mine.

I've got the spoils of my CSA box in the drawers, pickled red onions, pickled sour cherries, sourdough starter, sour pickles, bread and butter pickles, and the beverages delivered by Paul's beer of the month club on the bottom. Then as you move up, with the exception of my cheese drawer, which contains butter, eggs and fresh yeast, things become less substantial. Small containers of left over sauces, white miso, fudge that Paul brought back from Witchery, the restaurant in Edinburgh, a raspberry pie and an embarrassingly large bottle of wine, a gift many months back that I haven't been able to bring myself to drink.

So what does this all say about me, other than the fact that I love to pickle anything and everything and that I can't drink the beer as fast as it is delivered?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Moments of Inspiration

This past Saturday, in place of my usual Greenmarket run, I headed up to Soho to browse in my favorite bookstore, McNally Jackson. The browsing turned into a cup of coffee, reading the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and wandering among the shelves afterwards. All told I must have spent over three hours in the shop, and came away buzzing with knowledge of new books, images and ideas.

I find McNally Jackson to be quite unique in that it is small and independently owned, and yet seems to address a wide variety of book categories quite thoughtfully. Most wonderful small bookstores in New York seem to specialize, like the incomparable Kitchen Arts & Letters which has an extraordinary selection of cookbooks, or the charming Idlewild Books which specializes in travel guides, and fiction and memoirs set abroad.

Rather, McNally Jackson spans a broad spectrum with a small but comprehensive cookbook section, all sorts of indie and foreign magazines and journals, a wonderful architecture, design and fashion section, loads of philosophy, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and they even have a small but excellently chosen stationery section.

After relaxing in the cafe, I made a beeline for the magazine section. After flipping through a few mainstream food and decor magazines, and taking a moment to be depressed that they were out of the French Elle Decor, I moved onto some of the indies and quarterly journals. I found reference in one of them to the apparently seminal design blog (I of course had never heard of it) Swiss Miss, with which I am now somewhat obsessed. I perused the social action magazine Good, but became totally despondent at the state of our water supply as I read so put it down as quickly as I had picked it up. Moving on to happier things, I spied The Diner Journal, a quarterly food publication.

Initial thought: I love the weight of the paper but $9 seems like a lot for such a thin magazine. But then I flipped through to the back and found that the last third of the issue is chock full of recipes. Recipes that I actually wanted to make, almost all of them! Beet salad with tahini dressing sounded particularly appealing. I was newly inspired to do interesting things with the considerable contents of my vegetable drawers, and for that $9 seems a bargain.

I never go to McNally Jackson without taking a spin through the cookbook section, and this day was no exception. My latest yen for a new cookbook is now focused on Vefa's Kitchen, an encyclopedic Greek cookbook I noticed propped up on the display table.

Greek cuisine it seems is often unfairly maligned as mediocre or boring, due I think to the presence of an inexplicably high number of mediocre and boring Greek diners and restaurants. And some people are simply wary of the cuisine due to previous bad experiences with whitefish. But I've had a couple of truly fabulous Greek meals, so I know they do exist, it just takes a bit of effort to find them. I think I could experience many more fabulous Greek meals if this cookbook were given a space on my kitchen bookshelf.

But the real find in this section of the store was Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. Given that I was raised by quite an independent, forward thinking mother and that I myself have thus far pursued a path that tends more towards career woman than homemaker, it is perhaps odd that I have such a fascination with housekeeping. But I find it hard to pass by a book on the subject, and this time was no exception.

Written as a reference guide for the Victorian middle class, it details recipes, kitchen gadgets, cooking techniques, how to manage a household staff, household etiquette, how to care for sick household members and how to host guests appropriately. If it sounds dull and prescriptive, I assure you it is not. In the same vein as M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, Mrs. Beeton has a compelling voice and a very clear point of view.

Although not all of the advice is specifically applicable to the world today (I assume few people are dying their own wool these days for instance), the spirit of what she has to say is still relevant. The opening passage "As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path." drew me in completely, not just for the elegant language, but for the wisdom inherent in the sentiment. It seems that a few modern leaders could learn from Mrs. Beeton.

From cookbooks I could go only to design, where my eye was drawn immediately to a title that was new to me: Villa, by John Saladino.

This stunning book is all about one home, a 1920s era Italian style home in Santa Barbara. When the author bought it, the property was apparently little more than a stone ruin, but Mr. Saladino spent half a decade restoring it to its former glory. The book includes photos of the property in its original glory, in a dilapidated state and during and after the superb restoration.

The final product is quite literally breathtaking. When I came across the photo of the completed kitchen I'm afraid I moaned audibly. Large wooden ceiling beams (which I can very rarely resist) juxtaposed with long marble counters and ceramic floors...the kitchen echoed the brilliant mix of natural and refined materials that is so faithfully carried throughout the house. Not a hint of grotesque luxury, just pure, serene beauty. At $95 the book is not cheap, but as I am still thinking about the photos days later, I think it is likely a worthwhile investment.

Adjacent to the design section, my last stop was the stationery section. I always like to see what new and exciting options for note taking the store has found. They of course carry the ubiquitous Moleskin and Rhodia notebooks, and there is the requisite collection of girlish pads and books (although not too girlish, I have actually been known to buy one or two on occasion). But they also have rather witty options, like the notebook I came across that was bound by that net-like tape they used to use on the spines of library books and adorned with some ironic phrase on the cover that eludes me now.

But what I was most excited by on Saturday was the new Leuchtturm notebooks.

They look a bit like Moleskin books, what with the elastic strap ensuring closure, ribbon bookmark and the semi-glossy black covers, but it seems as if more attention has been paid to the fabrication than is the case with Moleskin. The books, when opened, lay flat, I suppose due to high quality thread binding. There are page numbers and a blank table of contents to aid in organization of your thoughts. And they come in sizes up to 9"x 12 1/2 ", considerably larger than their closest competitor. And somehow their prices appear to be equal to or less than Moleskin. Go figure. I'm seriously considering buying one of the large ones to serve as my kitchen notebook. I seem to have embarked on a intuitive cooking kick, which means I've been making things up as I go along, and thus I need somewhere to write down what I've done in case a dish turns out to be particularly wonderful. You know, to pass along to the grandchildren.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Bread and Butter

I tend to go to the Greenmarket and buy items with high ambitions in mind, particularly at this time of year. I have vague notions of canning and otherwise preserving the season's bounty to tide us through the cold hard winter, forgetting that this sort of Little House on the Prairie exercise is not, strictly speaking, necessary in this age of plenty. But that does not stop me from purchasing with abandon.

So, after a week of less time at home than I had anticipated, this weekend I was left with a refrigerator that was filled to bursting with my produce haul from the weekend prior. So, as difficult as it was, I refrained from making my weekly pilgrimage to Union Square on Saturday and vowed to do something with what I already had.

The first order of business, perhaps because they were taking up the most room, was to address my considerable stash of Kirby cucumbers. Kirbies, the quintessential pickling cucumber, simply cry out to be drowned in some sort of vinegar or brine concoction, doing otherwise would be sacrilegious. Not just because they look so cute in a pickle jar and keep a nice crunchy texture, but also because they are totally underwhelming eaten raw.

As I already had a fairly respectable store of sour pickles (thank you Michael Ruhlman), it was time to move on to one of my all time favorite varieties, bread and butter pickles. Now I've gone through quite a few recipes for these over the years, mostly from trendy preserving and pickling books that seem to have grown out of this recent hipster DIY canning movement, and frankly all of them were disappointing. I ended up with mushy pickles, with overly piquant pickles, with bright orange pickles...none of them achieved that sweet/sour/aromatic crunch that I yearned for.

Since bread and butter pickles hearken from another age (I feel as if they would be made by a grandmother, although neither of mine has ever come within ten feet of one), I figured my best bet would be to consult a cookbook from another age. Hence I turned to The "New" Doubleday Cookbook, copyright 1975.

I believe my mother bought the book for me when I was leaving for college in an effort to ensure that I would eat well while I was away. I salute her effort, but the idea that a mere cookbook could work against the forces of the frozen yogurt bar in the dining hall and the myriad options for late night cheesesteaks is in retrospect a bit funny.

But now that I am older and wiser (and I no longer have the metabolism of a collegiate athlete), I do actually use the book. And once I discovered the fabulous bread and butter pickle recipe, it won a spot on my heavy rotation bookshelf in the kitchen, from whence I pulled it to give you the seminal recipe for Aunt Florrie's Bread and Butter Pickles.

Aunt Florrie's Bread and Butter Pickles
From The New Doubleday Cookbook by Jean Anderson & Elaine Hanna

Yields 6 quarts (96 servings)

4 quarts paper-thin unpeeled cucumber slices
8 medium-size white onions, peeled and sliced paper thin
2 medium-size sweet green or red peppers, washed, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped (I usually omit this ingredient)
1/2 cup pickling salt (I use Kosher)
1 quart cracked ice
5 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons mustard seeds (I use brown mustard seeds)
1 teaspoon celery seeds
5 cups cider or white vinegar (I prefer cider, but both are good)

Mix all vegetables, salt, and ice in a very large colander, weight down, pressing out liquid, set over a large kettle and let stand 3 hours, in refrigerator if possible. (I tend to put the colander in my sink, set a plate over the cucumbers and place a tea kettle full of water on the plate to weigh it down). (Note: If kitchen is warm and you haven't refrigerator space, add more cracked ice after 1 1/2 hours.) Meanwhile, wash and sterilize 6 quart jars and lids (I usually just run them through the dishwasher).

Mix sugar, spices and vinegar in a very large enamel or stainless steel kettle. Drain vegetables well and add to kettle. Heat, uncovered, over moderate heat just to the boiling point, moving a wooden spoon through mixture occasionally but not actually stirring. Ladle boiling hot into jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of tops, wipe rims, and seal. Cool, check seals, label and store in a cool, dark, dry place. Let stand 4-6 weeks before serving. If you don't want to hassle with the actual canning/sealing part of this recipe, just keep the jars in the fridge. They last for ages.

Friday, July 24, 2009

What I Liked This Week

The ever inventive Mark Bittman saves us from a summer of boring vegetables with 101 salad variations in this week's New York Times. I'm itching to try out at least half of them.

My sister alerted me to some cute, free organizational aids this week. Printable mini file folders! All you need to supply is your own chicly designed, heavy paper and you'll be on the verge of getting your life in order.

Terry at Blue Kitchen's got me in the mood for some fish stew with his intensely delicious looking recipe for bourride.

Although I think I may detest sardines, I am tempted to give them just one more chance with David Lebovitz's recipe for sardine pate. Perhaps the flavor will be just masked enough by the butter and shallots to be palatable?

And just as a follow-up to my declaration that I would be making Michael Ruhlman's sour pickles (no vinegar, you just let them ferment in brine for a week), I did indeed make them, and no word of a lie, they are some of the most delicious pickles I've ever tasted.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Crate of Roses

My first job out of college was at an investment bank that no longer exists. Objectively speaking the job wasn't bad. My colleagues were friendly, my commute was blessedly short and subway free, and I was getting paid more than a 22 year old ever should. But subjectively I was miserable. I was uninspired by what I considered to be the rather esoteric work. Everything and everyone that I was surrounded by each day just seemed rather...beige.

After a little more than a year working at the doomed bank I met Paul. And although my life outside work became fabulously exciting when we began to see each other, there was little that could be done about my life during the workday. Or so I thought.

Valentine's Day, which to this day is a holiday I find somewhat repulsive, rolled around. I insisted that we would not go out for a celebratory dinner. I refused to endorse the exorbitant prices that restaurants charge on this day. No, I would cook instead. I wanted no fuss made in the public realm.

But regardless, much to my surprise, a crate of perfect pink roses from Spruce arrived at my desk that day.

Suddenly, everything seemed a lot less beige. Not only was the pink color enlivening, but the arrangement, which looked a bit like a garden in a box, transcended that tired old Valentine's Day standby of a dozen roses, god forbid with baby's breath. I was happy not only due to my unusually close proximity to beauty that day, but also happy that the man that I had been falling so hard and fast for was just as thoughtful, creative and unique as I thought he was.

So when I had occasion to send some flowers recently, I am totally at a loss to explain why Spruce didn't come to mind immediately. Instead I was doing a somewhat absurd amount of research on New York florists, and in the process was becoming increasingly frustrated by the prices. Who knew a bouquet could cost more than a dinner at Per Se? At a certain point it seems that the recipient would rather have the cash than the overpriced blooms.

But I found myself walking up Eighth Avenue the other day and passed Spruce's retail store. The vibrant blossoms were too great of a draw, I had to go in. I got to chatting with the friendliest shopgirl ever (I embarrassingly have now forgotten her name). As I was admiring the larger crates but lamenting the prices, she mentioned that they could put together a 6 rose crate for only $35. Now that was more like it! The yellow roses trimmed with red coupled with a reasonable delivery charge compelled me to make the purchase. Here's hoping the recipient enjoys them as much as I did all those years ago!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Green Shoots

I am much happier when I feel that my living space is clean and organized than when it is disorderly. I like my bathtub gleaming, my carpets vacuumed, my surfaces free from clutter and my laundry hamper empty. But most importantly, I like my pantry, refrigerator and freezer to be not only clean but also well-stocked. And by well-stocked I mean prepared to feed me and whoever else might be stopping by well during the week ahead.

So when I return from traveling, no matter how clean I have left my apartment before my departure, I always feel that work needs to be done in the kitchen. Of course my staples must be replenished (eggs to poach for breakfast, good butter for my toast and milk for my daily cup of PG Tips), but I never feel like my house is completely in order until I've been to the Greenmarket and gathered some of the latest season's bounty.

This past Saturday may have represented the beginning of the zenith of summer as far as fruit and vegetables are concerned. For those in New York who are not familiar with the glory that is the Union Square Greenmarket, I simply must insist that you go next Saturday and purchase peaches from Oakgrove Plantation's stand at the northern end of the square and dark cherries from The Cheerful Cherry on the western side of the square. Once you eat them, you will have found bliss.

Perhaps less sexy but just as special as summer fruit are the summer vegetables. And last Saturday it was the ephemeral fava beans that were the object of my affection.

Fava beans are spectacularly labor intensive to cook with, but I love their vaguely grassy, delicate flavor so much that I can overlook the extra work. They strike me as somewhat rich tasting, or as rich perhaps as a bean can be, and in that there is something luxurious. And as the season is so short, I'm happy to put up with the finicky preparation for as long as the favas are around.

In the past I've always seen them in salads or succotash, both of which are wonderful ways to showcase the favas. However, as the beans themselves are a fair amount of work I'm always looking for low effort recipes in which to employ them. Smashing them up and spreading them on toast is about as easy as it gets. And, paired with a toast topped with fromage blanc, olive oil and salt, it makes for a perfect afternoon snack. Or light lunch, if you are feeling particularly virtuous.

Fava Bean Spread Makes enough for 4 large toasts

1 1/4 pounds of fava beans (approximately 6 ounces shelled)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon of Maldon salt (if using kosher or table salt, reduce amount, add to taste)
3 tablespoons olive oil

Bring approximately two quarts of water to a boil. Shell fava beans and boil them until tender, 30 seconds or so. Either run cold water over the beans or wait until they are cool enough to handle and then remove the outer skins (I knick a hole at one end with my fingernail and then pop the beans out, but everyone has their own method). Add beans to a mortar (or bowl of a food processor if you prefer) and add mint and olive oil. Bash with a pestle or process until a coarse paste has developed. Salt to taste, and serve, spread on toast or crackers.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Les Vacances: Part V


When I travel I usually go to one city or one region and spent a week or so in the place soaking everything in. By the end of my time I've got a regular coffee spot and wine bar. So this trip, which spanned three countries and five locales, was an unusual one for me. I left each place I visited reluctantly (with the possible exception of Glastonbury), feeling as though I had whet my appetite with a drive by but had no real chance to sate my desire for immersion. I was looking forward to standing still for a minute, and Paul's parents' house was the perfect place to do so.

By this point Paul had finished the business he had to take care of in London, so he and his dad met me at the airport in his hometown of Manchester and chauffeured me back to the family homestead. Paul's mom was standing in the front yard amongst the flowers smiling and ready with a big hug. It all felt like something out of a Beatrix Potter story.

After a fortifying dinner of beef in beer and vegetables from the family allotment (how much more British can you get?)

Paul accompanied (dragged) me into town to see an aging Irish punk band play at the university's student union. Now the band was not even remotely my cup of tea, but I have to say the scene at the student union was pretty unbelievable. The building had several floors, each with multiple rooms serving as venues and all of them were full! It's not too often that you see so many bands in one place, especially on a Tuesday. When I commented on it Paul responded that it was not an uncommon occurrence. "Babes, Manchester is the giggingest city there is!"

We slept like logs in our twin beds that night, and for the first time during the whole trip I truly lounged the next morning. Paul's parents always take their breakfast in the conservatory off of the kitchen, and I could have sat there with them and Toby the Jack Russell for hours among the flora.

But Paul's Auntie Pat, who is one of those sharp-as-a-tack, says-what-she-thinks octogenarians that every family should have, was due for lunch. And as I had never met her, it seemed only appropriate that I should shower and dress in preparation for her visit.

I love big traditional British lunches. I think I should start hosting them. Paul's mother had cleaned out Marks & Spencer and laid the store's inventory on the family table. We had cold meats, quiche, salad, root vegetables (again, from the allotment), wine, pavlova with cream and berries...there is something so luxurious and rare about eating that well in the middle of the day.

After lunch, more lounging, some tea drinking, some wandering in the back garden,

some peeking in the greenhouse,

and some more lounging. I believe that it was on this afternoon that I noticed this fantastic idea for toilet paper storage in one of the bathrooms... I alone in loving this?

Eventually Paul and I were off for another night in the great city of Manchester. After checking in at the venue with a certain band we all headed across the town center to meet up with some of my favorite of Paul's old, old friends for an Indian feast for the ages at East z East. The food was delicious, made even more so by the fabulous company.

Walking back through Manchester it wasn't hard to see why Paul loves it so. The spirit of the city reminds me of a very cool, edgy and beautiful girl who either doesn't know or doesn't care that she is good looking. She's a little rough around the edges, has a vaguely dirty sense of humor and never wants for loyal friends. The kind of person you just want to be around.

Despite the massive quantities of indian food the band had consumed, they still managed to play quite the show. I consumed my last cider of the trip (I had been in withdrawal since Glastonbury), we bounced around town for a bit, and then back to those comfy twin beds in Paul's childhood room.

I woke up the next morning feeling a little melancholy. My European sojourn had come to an end, and I was scheduled to be back in New York that evening. I relished my last morning eating breakfast in the conservatory, packed my things and said my goodbyes to the parents and my beloved, who would not be returning to New York for another two weeks.

It was cold comfort that I got to spend two hours in the Amsterdam airport, a place I had heard so much about, where they have Bjorn Borg boxer shorts on sale in multiple locations, and that I got to fly for the first time on a double decker plane. Whichever way you sliced it I was sad to leave. But then again I was happy to come home.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Les Vacances: Part IV

Although I've heard all about the rare beauty of Switzerland, I can't say that it was ever all that high on my list of places to visit. However, my brilliant scientist friend Elaine had moved there a year and a half back when her research lab relocated, and as it had been some time since I'd seen her, I was in the neighborhood and her passport had expired, I found myself en route to Basel.

I took the most expensive ten minute cab ride of my life from the small, orderly Basel airport across the ice blue river to Elaine's apartment. I have to admit I was a little jealous. It was spacious and light, with long white curtains billowing in the breeze and birds chirping just outside the windows. I felt as if I was in Pleasantville.

After a quick pit stop at Elaine's lab to play with a few test tubes, we were on our way to the Alps for a weekend of hiking. We took a bus (for which we waited approximately 45 seconds) to the train station, where we were able to purchase one ticket for a journey that spanned several modes of transportation and ended in a town with a population of approximately five. But only after a four minute lecture from the ticket vendor about the importance of signing the back of my debit card (I forgot, OK?! It's a new card!).

After a big train, a small train, a gondola and a mountain train, the connections between which were utterly stress free, Elaine and I alighted in the mountain town of Murren. We walked across town to the Hotel Alpenruh,

where we were greeted by the friendly Swiss proprietor and shown to our adorable room.

I was totally charmed that they had left us apples to snack on, and with an eye towards sleep I was thrilled with the bed. I love nothing more than a good mattress, down pillows, duvets and featherbeds and that was exactly what I had to look forward to.

But first, dinner. Ten minutes later we were back across town in the restaurant at the Hotel Eiger enjoying a rich, tangy fondue served by the most wonderful waiter. A man who clearly took his profession seriously, he took excellent care of us and made full use of all of the arcane silverware and carts at his disposal, right down to a specialized implement that he used to scrape off the cooked cheese at the bottom of our fondue pot so that we could enjoy a treat.

Back at the hotel, we were snoozing by 9:30. Elaine hadn't slept for several days and I at heart am eighty-five years old.

The next morning we awoke early to a brilliantly clear day, perfect for the hike we had planned. After a hearty Swiss breakfast (I still miss the buffet at the Hotel Alpenruh) we were off. Elaine is my most athletic and intrepid friend so of course she suggested that we take a gondola down from our mountain top to the valley and then climb back up an even higher mountain. No walking along ridges or valleys for us! Thank god her time in Basel has driven her to start smoking, otherwise I would have had no hope of keeping up.

We set off hiking from the small town of Stechelberg and walked along the valley floor for a time.

Presently, we came across the first of many groups of cows. Or would that be a herd? Good god I'm citified.

Given the obvious health of the cows it wasn't hard to see why we had such wonderful cheese options at breakfast.

Soon the trail began to rise. It quickly turned into steep switchbacks directly up an Alp. I thought perhaps this was an anomaly and said something about hoping the whole hike wasn't this bad. Elaine responded that it would probably get worse and offered me one of her crazy ski pole like walking sticks that I had mocked twelve hours earlier. It was not long before I accepted.

Despite the strenuous activity, I was enjoying myself immensely. I grew up hiking in various American mountain ranges with my nature-loving parents but haven't done much in the way of hiking since college. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the great outdoors. Plus which all of the fresh air was bringing back a flood of wonderful childhood memories.

The higher we got the more spectacular the views were and the more often I stopped to enjoy them. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was gasping for air. No, my breaks were all about the views.

Another happy side effect of our elevation change was that we began to see a beautiful array of wildflowers. The season had passed in the valley, but we were climbing so steeply that we actually had changed climate zones.

Just when I thought my legs might collapse beneath me we came to our first destination, the town of Obersteinberg. Town may be too strong of a term. We came to a guest house that represented the entirety of Obersteinberg. In need of some refreshment, we both ordered giant beers and enjoyed the frosty goodness outdoors while taking in the craggy alpine peaks.

Elaine took this time to study the maps.

We had several and still didn't quite know where we were. Thank god the signage on the hiking trails was so good otherwise who knows where we would have ended up.

Soon we were back on our feet on our way to Oberhornsee, a picturesque Alpine Lake 300 meters above Obersteinberg. I would probably have been more excited about setting off again had I ordered a diet coke rather than a beer, but no matter. We ambled through some relatively flat meadowland, admiring the glacier covered summits of the Jungfrau along the way, and I was lulled into a false sense of confidence in my own physical ability.

Then we came to a Mordor-like crag.

Apparently our destination was up it. I fear I may have turned into a slightly whiny child at that point, but we eventually made it to the serene little lake into which I immediately dunked my feet. And then removed them almost as quickly in order to avoid frostbite. Ah, I knew that glacier was melting into something!

During our moment of repose Elaine and I ate some cookies and consulted the guidebook. Apparently we had climbed from an elevation of 910 meters to an elevation of 2,065 meters. So we had climbed 1,155 meters...3,788 feet! Three times the height of the Empire State Building! I was totally impressed with myself and paused for some self-congratulation. Elaine took the opportunity to go climb another mini-mountain adjacent to the lake while I lounged in the grass. Ah, bliss.

As we set off home the rains came. Apparently the weather patterns in the Alps resemble those in tropical countries during the rainy season. Massive afternoon downpours each day. No matter, we stopped back in Obersteinberg for some delicious meat soup and waited it out. And then descended back down to the valley through a lush crevasse next to a perfectly grey river. It was the most fascinating seemed pure and clean rather than dirty, almost the shade of a dove. Perhaps this is what melted glaciers look like? Or is some rare Swiss mineral to blame? Anybody know?

Along the way we came across plenty of wandering cows, adorable houses and some of the most orderly wood piles I've ever seen.

We fell into bed that night pleasantly tired and looking forward to another beautiful day hiking in the Alps.

But the next day we bounded out to our balcony only to be met with threatening clouds.

And then the rain arrived. Early. Our plans to hike up a glacier were dashed, so we lazed around the breakfast room for a while and then decided to go to the valley to check out the Trummelbachfall, a waterfall inside of a mountain.

We headed to the Murren train station and came across what would become the most extreme comedy of errors I had seen in quite some time. A British couple was talking frantically at the ticket window, it seems they had some sort of question regarding transportation. The man finally exclaimed "I don't have enough German to ask!" Nevermind that the ticket seller spoke better english than I do.

Down on the train a large foreign family was causing a ruckus. Five unruly children frustrated their father so much that he left the car, leaving the mother to unsuccessfully mediate the squabbles between the children. Then the British couple came on the train, still quite frantic. The man whipped out some Superglue to mend a bag and the woman nearly had a nervous breakdown regarding the "toxic fumes" until she opened the train window in the most spastic manner possible. They relaxed for a moment until they realized that they had lost something quite vital. Both were immediately on the floor, searching, outside of the train, searching, running about, searching. The man screeched "should I meet you in the valley?!!" at his compatriot. Thank god they got off the train together, I'm not sure they could have found one another again. It was the most chaos I had encountered on my entire trip. It was all very un-Swiss.

Finally, the train left the station. We alighted in Lauterbrunnen, and after admiring some very precise shingle work

and enviable vegetable gardens

we made it to the waterfall in the mountain. And it was impressive. More than worth the trouble of fighting through throngs of tourists wearing inappropriate footwear.

One of six different chutes running down the mountain caves...

...I was unable to capture the phenomenal power of the water on film, you'll just have to take my word for it: the falls were awe inspiring. And I should have brought a poncho.

When we came out of the mountain we discovered that it was still raining in the valley.

In search of sun we went father down to the town of Interlaken, where the sun did indeed show itself. We hopped on a boat headed to Thun, with stops in many cute lakeside hamlets along the way. It provided the perfect opportunity to lounge, and Elaine took advantage of the time to read about horrid ice climbing experiences on the Eiger.

I took the time to stare aimlessly at scenery. It was possibly the most relaxing experience of my entire trip.

Once in Thun we took a gander at the local castle

and based on a brief stroll around decided that we really liked the city. Bustling, it melds ancient and modern effortlessly. In fact, Elaine liked it so much that she plans to go back when it comes time to write her thesis.

After a dinner of wild Alpine deer accompanied by an excellent bottle of Swiss red (why have I never heard of Swiss wines before? They're wonderful!) we again fell into bed, spent, sinking back thankfully into our down wonderland.

The next day we skipped our hotel breakfast buffet in favor of the breakfast buffet at the revolving restaurant at the top of the famous peak the Schilthorn. I am not sure if it is famous for its height, views or the fact that a James Bond movie from the 70s was filmed there. We took two different gondolas 1100 meters into the clouds, and arrived here:

A restaurant that looks very much like it belongs in the 70s in a James Bond movie. Oddly, it was just the floor that revolved, not the outer walls. This meant that I nearly lost several items that I set down on the windowsill as they were halfway around the restaurant before I knew it. Too much bacon and too many waffles combined with too many revolutions per hour meant that our time up there was a little short. Which was too bad because the views were utterly phenomenal, even on a cloudy day.

The Jungfrau was shrouded in clouds, but the Eiger was clear as a bell.

That small spot on the lower left is the midpoint of the ride where you transfer gondolas on the way up to the summit.

As soon as the dizziness subsided we departed Murren, I to Geneva and Elaine to Basel. Again, the transport system was stunningly good and the trip was worry free. And I was able to buy one ticket from a tiny town in central Switzerland to an airport on the French border. America take note. Traveling doesn't have to be so hard!

I once heard a joke that goes "Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs are Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and it's all organized by the Italians."

Having spent time in beautiful and highly functional Switzerland, I can finally appreciate the full humor of this joke (or at least half of it...I cannot comment on the role of the Swiss in hell).

I would miss the pure air, the dramatic landscapes, the cheese, the train system and the orderliness of Swizerland. I knew my time was short when the lovely Lake Geneva came into view...

...soon I was en route to my final destination.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Les Vacances: Part III


My sister, following several particularly horrid experiences at London Stansted, once said that everything improves once you leave that airport. I would have to concur. As blissful as my time in London was, my time in the airport was nothing but enervating. I was made to check my jams and jellies by the security guards, but it was unclear how I was meant to do so until I had a small hissy fit and demanded that someone pay attention to me. And to top off the running around and general confusion, I, the person who values a hearty (or at least nutritious) morning meal like no other, only had enough british cash left to buy myself some vanilla wafer sandwich cookies for breakfast.

But true to form, once I landed in Barcelona everything was, in a word, easy. My suitcase was disgorged from the plane almost immediately, there was no line for a cab, and the drive to Laia's family's apartment, where I would be resting my head for the next few days, was quick, direct and reasonable.

After alighting from the cab and passing through the grand entryway of the apartment building, I was directed to the historically accurate, Willy Wonka-esque elevator by the doorwoman (such a progressive country Spain is! Perhaps they even have female cab drivers?) and, with considerable effort wedged myself and my bags into the miniature vessel. Several floors up, I was greeted by an ebullient Laia opening a very major door with an even more major knocker.

And then I walked into one of the more beautiful apartments I have ever set foot in. I felt like a guest of the Doge of Venice what with the mosaic floors, soaring ceilings and baroque features. Laia's parents have done the most beautiful job with the place...the ornateness of the apartment is tempered nicely by the modern decor, and I had a minor swooning session over the custom Italian chandelier that they had chosen for the living room.

The east wing:

The west wing:

And the view from one of the balconies:

It feels quite romantic to be above the treetops, no?

Luckily, I arrived mid-afternoon, smack dab in the middle of the Catalonian lunch hour. Laia and her sister Marta were famished, and as my vanilla wafer breakfast was well in the past I was beyond ravenous. Laia was thrilled by the prospect of her first meal of the trip at her favorite neighborhood spot.

Ah, my first foray into the legendary Barcelona food scene! Cerveseria Catalana did not disappoint. At three in the afternoon on a Wednesday the wait was thirty minutes so I knew I was in for a treat.

Once seated we took care of the vital points immediately: cold beers to counteract the warm day. Then, in a flurry of Catalan the sisters ordered and soon thereafter the plates began to come. The jamon alone nearly threw me into an ecstatic fit, the calamari was a total revelation (the dish doesn't have to be mediocre! Who knew?) and I would walk over scorching hot sand barefoot for the simple perfection that is their pan con tomate. I must get in the habit of making it at home. The meal was exactly what one dares to hope for when the word "tapas" is uttered.

After we had sufficiently cleaned the plates and paid our pleasingly de minimis bill, it was off to the old city for a wander through narrow corridors,

past ornate decorations,

and, as I would learn shortly, over the remains of civilizations past.

Partially to escape the heat, and partially to explore the literal underbelly of Barcelona, we visited the archeological museum, which contained a shockingly well preserved Roman city ruin, which existed several layers under an old church. I spent the next hour marveling at how advanced people were "back then". The wine cellar, the public baths, the laundry room, the sewer system...amazing! And then Laia reminded me that humans have actually had the use of opposable thumbs for quite some time and that I perhaps should not be so surprised that our predecessors were able to maintain a basic level of health and hygiene. Point taken.

After a quick horchata (a paradoxical drink...made from a rich base of ground nuts it is surprisingly refreshing) on the Ramblas with a friend, we were off home to make ourselves presentable for the night ahead...the cousins dinner.

We set off for a short trip on the extraordinarily clean and reasonable regional rail system

and presently found ourselves just outside of the city at the home of the lovely Ariana and her husband to be Antonio. Family members abounded, the long lost American cousins and their friend were welcomed with great fanfare, and from that point on I was swept up in a Catalan whirlwind. It is hard to remember another event at which I enjoyed myself so thoroughly and yet understood so little. Valiant efforts were made by all to speak some english and to translate the spirited exchanges so I was able to follow the general arc of the evening, but mostly I just sat back and enjoyed listening and seeing a family reunited.

We awoke the next day with a plan: Gaudi!

Laia and Marta, the consummate tour guides, gamely took me to see the architectural genius's masterpieces, despite the fact that they must have seen them dozens of times before. Stop number one was the fascinating Sagrada Familia, the mater's as yet unfinished cathedral. The city has apparently been working on completing it for the past 100 years, and perhaps will spend the next 100 years working on it as well. No matter, it will have been worth the wait. And as Laia's parents were married in the structure, I can only assume that it is functional enough in the interim.

The old face has a look of darkness and despair. In fact, it almost seems as if the facade itself is weeping, or perhaps melting? It was quite hot that day. The intricacy of the scenes depicted is astonishing...I can only assume that this is the side that Gaudi had the chance to design completely before he died.

And then the newer side, in a cleaner, happier, yet more austere style. Perhaps he didn't have sufficient time to fully design it, or perhaps his sensibilities had changed over the course of the design process? The figurines almost have an art deco look to them, which I suppose would make sense, as Gaudi died just as the movement took hold.

Sagrada Familia is truly one of the most unique structures I have ever come across...I was certainly in no danger of succumbing to that cathedral malaise that can set in on trips to Europe (oh another one, beautiful, but my lord, it looks like all the others!).

And then, my favorite part of the Barcelonian day...lunch! We took the clean and reasonable subway down towards the ocean and settled on La Gavina for our midday repast. Laia had been hankering for a good fideua (sort of a paella made with vermicelli noodles rather than rice) and I just wanted to sit somewhere with a cool drink. Once again, the beautiful sisters ordered well.

We had some of the plumpest, sweetest mussels on earth as a starter, and monkfish and the legendary fideua as our mains. I now see why monkfish used to be considered the poor man's lobster...a good specimen really does reveal an uncanny resemblance! And after the delicious food, wine and cava, a siesta was in order.

Luckily, the family apartment was only blocks from another famous Gaudi work, La Pedrera. After rousing myself from a deep slumber at 7:00 (the fideua had slayed me), Laia and I ambled over to see what the great man had come up with.

Undulating balconies resembling the waves of the ocean,

ironwork resembling the roots of a plant (or perhaps cells of a leaf? Am I stretching here?)

and hallways supported by what looked to be ribs,

the whole building seemed to be one big homage to nature. As a side note, can someone please turn this dangling object into a chandelier? Positioning a mirror underneath, Gaudi apparently used these creations as a design technique, to see how, in this case, multiple round topped towers might work (the reflection did look quite a lot like a building I must say). But I think perhaps he missed an opportunity to create some of the great light fixtures of his time.

On to the roof! Why are ventilation ducts in New York so ugly when it is clear they can be so appealing?

I realize that it is rather trite of me to say that I love Gaudi, as every vaguely well traveled American seems to, but I'll say it, I love Gaudi. The man strikes me as a happy genius rather than a mad one and his work is unlike anything I've seen before. It is simply inspired, and I feel helps to define the buoyant, soulful spirit of the city.

Soon we were off for a late dinner with a friend of Marta's in the old city. He bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my oldest and dearest friends Alfio, so I liked him immediately. It didn't hurt that he spoke wonderful english all through dinner for my benefit, and that he picked the perfect restaurant for the evening. If you are ever in Barcelona and in need of some light, not strictly speaking Spanish fare, I highly recommend Salero in the old city. Laia and I munched on some excellent mediterranean dips (that was about all I could handle after the massive lunch we had indulged in), and I believe our compatriots had something Asian?

Regardless, everything was delicious. We made a couple of stops afterward, but I'll admit my recollection is fuzzy...very good mojitos were involved, I know that much.

I woke up on my last day in Barcelona vaguely depressed. I didn't want to leave my luxurious apartment and beautiful city! But all good things must come to an end.

The three of us made the trek up a mountain to see the Olympic facilities. Marta chose to lie out by the stunningly blue pool that had been used for the diving competitions, and Laia and I, the palest of the three, chose shade and air conditioning in the Fundacio Joan Miro, a stop I highly recommend. And just for good measure we swung by the Olympic stadium...

Quite well designed, I must say! Seemed like there wasn't a bad seat in the house.

And then, having enjoyed the very special Catalonian candy that Laia had bought me for Christmas a year or so back, I demanded that she take me to the source. Mauri...

I bought a pound of the candy as a gift, but idiotically neglected to get any for myself. Next time I'll know better.

By this time Laia's parents had arrived in Barcelona, so we all were off on the train again to another, this time smaller, family dinner with her cousin Jordi and his mother. These relations were, unsurprisingly, also excellent hosts and I could not have enjoyed my evening more. Jordi practiced his english which embarrassingly is quite good, and his mother spoke to me in Spanish in hopes that it would be more effective than Catalan. How little she knew...I'm American, I speak foreign languages badly and infrequently, something that I am determined to remedy each time I return from a trip but never do.

Reluctantly, I got up the next day for my absurdly early flight and snuck out of the beautiful apartment as quietly as I could, regretting my departure every step of the way. I was hoping to spot one of the tired old drag queens that I had heard so much about coming out of the discotheque across the street early in the morning, but alas it was not to be. I had to settle for Barcelona at sunrise instead.

I think I got the better end of the bargain in the end...
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