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Recipe Box: Stuffed Provençal Vegetables

After cleaning up from our day of harvesting grapes, my friends and I met our hosts, Paul and Miriam, and our new German friends, Nils and Juliana, in the parking lot of the gîte. We got in our car and they got in Nils and Juliana’s car and off we drove to Jean-Louis’ place, which was just a short way down the road.

Jean-Louis introduced his wife (who worked in a bank and was dressed rather smartly), his mother-in-law (whom we had met earlier that day and whom we knew had been busy in the kitchen preparing our dinner), and his youngest daughter (whom I guessed to be about eight years old). After aperitifs were poured, we made ourselves comfortable in the large and spacious but homey living room.

The conversation that evening was mostly in French, with Jean-Louis’ wife and Paul as our main storytellers. Despite my limited French skills, I was able to follow along thanks to the animated way they both talked as well as Paul’s effort to speak slowly and carefully. It wasn’t long before we were invited to take our seats at the expansive wooden farm table in the next room.

I was seated next to the grandmother. As I was feeling the effects of the aperitif and also highly conscious of the fact that I was the only registered driver on our rental car (which I wasn’t 100% sure was properly insured, thanks to a communications snafu at the rental counter when we had picked up the car a week earlier), I came up with what I thought would be an ingenious way of managing my liquor intake for the rest of the evening: I would sip my wine very slowly.

But the grandmother was much too smart for me. When we were into our second course and she saw that I was still nursing my first glass of wine, she asked (in French) if I didn’t like the wine. I assured her (in French) that I thought the wine was excellent. I also realized that I needed to drink up to avoid offending my hosts. Which meant that, for the remainder of the evening, the minute my glass neared the halfway mark, the grandmother topped it up.

Dinner consisted of a simple green salad with olive oil to start, served with three types of bread. We were encouraged to wipe off our plates after every course with the bread, something I’ve noticed my French friends do automatically. The main course was zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes, all stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and herbs. A cheese course followed, more bread, coffee, then dessert, which consisted of fruit flans, one of which was quince, baked on cookie sheets. Brandy to finish off the evening. We ate until we could eat no more. Even Nils looked to be in pain when they tried to get him to take a third helping of the fruit flan.

The party finally broke up around midnight. As I rummaged around in my bag for the car keys, I told my friends I was slightly drunk, but thought I was OK to drive the short distance back to the gîte. However, no sooner had I poked the nose of the car into the road when one of my friends pointed out that another vehicle was approaching. I quickly reversed the car. “OK, maybe not so OK,” I muttered.

When I finally decided it was safe to pull into the road, I pointed the car in the direction we had to go. I drove very slowly and finally the gîte pulled into view. Paul and Miriam were waiting for us in the parking lot because they were worried we had gotten lost.

That wasn’t the problem,” I said and I told them about my evening sitting beside the grandmother. And the next morning when we all said our good-byes, Nils apologized for feeling a bit hung over. He blamed the grandmother. “Oh, me too!” I said. “I had the exact same problem!”

I have tried several different recipes in an effort to replicate the stuffed vegetables we ate that night. With some tweaking, the following is the best I can come up with. It still doesn’t taste as good as I remember, but it’s a fair copy.

Bon appétit!

Stuffed Provençal Vegetables

Stuffed Provençal Vegetables

1/4 cup bread crumbs or panko
1/4 cup milk
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef
4 shallots, minced
2 cups mushrooms, diced
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence
salt and pepper
2 red peppers
2 orange peppers
2 green peppers
1 eggplant
4 medium tomatoes

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Pour the milk over the bread crumbs or panko and set aside.
3. Cut the tops off the peppers and tomatoes and remove the seeds. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh. Alternatively, cut the eggplant horizontally into thirds and scoop out the flesh, making sure you don’t scoop all the way through so that you leave a base for each piece of eggplant. Arrange the vegetables in a baking pan.
4. Combine the pork, beef, shallots, mushrooms, Herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, and moistened bread crumbs or panko. Mix to combine.
5. Fill each vegetable with a generous amount of the meat mixture. (The meat will shrink as it cooks.)
6. Bake for about 1 hour or until meat is cooked through and vegetables are soft.

Note: The tricky part to this recipe is that the different vegetables vary in how quickly they will cook. The tomatoes need the least amount of time, while the eggplant needs the most. Other vegetables that could be stuffed include zucchini or large mushrooms.

Dishing: The Pear Tree

Back when I lived in Toronto, I used to joke that I never went north of Eglinton if I could help it. Here in Vancouver, I make similar jokes about how I do everything I can to avoid travelling to bridge-and-tunnel land. These kinds of comments can easily get you into trouble with certain folks (as in: the ones who live north of Eglinton or in bridge-and-tunnel land). They are also the folks who know that there are many excellent reasons to venture out of the downtown core.

WineThe Pear Tree is one of those reasons. Ranked 49th in the 2015 list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, it has been serving quality, classic food in Burnaby Heights for almost two decades. Was it the sole reason I trekked all the way out to North Burnaby the other weekend? Not entirely. But the offer from my sister and her husband of a nice dinner out (who am I to turn down a free meal?) as a thank you for hanging out in Solo so I could watch over their house and feed their cats while they were on walkabout in Southeast Asia was all the incentive I needed to spend an hour Skytraining my way east.

Upon arrival we were immediately seated by a young hostess who took our coats ― and then promptly disappeared. (Seriously. We never saw her again.) But in no time at all we were sipping cocktails and studying the menu in earnest. We made our selections with care.

And then.

And then we sat back and enjoyed ourselves. There wasn’t a wrong step with any of the dishes.

The highlight of my evening was my first course: Orange Caramelized Scallops with Double-Smoked Bacon Risotto. Creamy and full of flavour, the risotto was neither too bland nor too cheesy. I was a wee bit worried that the citrus flavour would overpower the scallops, but there was just a hint of it. The dish is also available as a main course.

Orange Caramelized Scallops with Double-Smoked Bacon Risotto

Orange Caramelized Scallops with Double-Smoked Bacon Risotto

I ordered the Twice-Cooked Fraser Valley Belly with White Bean Cassoulet so I could compare it to the cassoulet I so fondly remembered from a long-ago visit to Carcassonne, France. The Pear Tree version was nothing like the Carcassonne version. (No surprise there, to be honest, and I would have been disappointed if it had.) The pork belly was crisp, but moist; if you like your bacon well-cooked, this is not the dish for you as you will likely be turned off by the fattiness of the pork belly. The meat lay on a bed of white beans and green pea puree.

Twice-Cooked Fraser Valley Pork Belly with White Bean Cassoulet

Twice-Cooked Fraser Valley Pork Belly with White Bean Cassoulet

Roasted steelhead and grilled pork tenderloin were the choices for my sister and her husband and there were no complaints at our table. As we all tucked into our main courses, our waiter brought us a plate of lightly dressed fresh greens to share.

Pan Roasted Lois Lake Steelhead served with Pommes Dauphine and Butternut Squash

Pan Roasted Lois Lake Steelhead served with Pommes Dauphine and Butternut Squash

Chargrilled Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Crusted Salsify and Potato Pave

Chargrilled Pork Tenderloin with Bacon-Crusted Salsify and Potato Pave

Stilton with Candied Nuts and Toasted Brioche

Stilton with Candied Nuts and Toasted Brioche

We finished our meal with a cheese course of stilton and candied walnuts, but it was the arrival of our trio of desserts that drew gasps from our neighbours. No wonder ― they looked spectacular. I had the Chocolate Ganache with a Crisp Nut Base, Salted Caramel, and Orange Chocolate Sorbet. Now here’s a revelation: salted caramel is the perfect companion to deep rich chocolate. Even so, my favourite part may have been the nut-based crust.

Chocolate Ganache with a Crisp Nut Base, Salted Caramel, and Orange Chocolate Sorbet

Chocolate Ganache with a Crisp Nut Base, Salted Caramel, and Orange Chocolate Sorbet

The Vanilla Crème Brulée with a Crisp Brandy Snap was the creamiest crème brulée I’ve tasted in a long while. I loved how the vanilla flavour was front and centre.

Vanilla Crème Brulée with a Crisp Brandy Snap

Vanilla Crème Brulée with a Crisp Brandy Snap

But the star of the night was the Fresh Lemon Tart with Lemon Sour Cream Sorbet. I say this because it was the dessert with the most dramatic presentation with its tower of spun sugar. I happen to think that lemon tarts have long been underrated ― the fresh lemony taste of this one only confirmed my belief.

Fresh Lemon Tart with Lemon Sour Cream Sorbet

Fresh Lemon Tart with Lemon Sour Cream Sorbet

When we were finally sated and I had heard all about my sister and her husband’s travels, we got up and I moved towards the coat closet beside our table. But Stephanie, co-owner and front of house, had already placed them on a table in the lounge. How did she know which coats were ours without a coat check tag? Pear ArtThis is a mystery to me. (Remember, the hostess who took our coats upon our arrival had long disappeared.) Stephanie’s husband, co-owner and chef Scott, stood beside her and chatted with us as we put on our coats. It was a homey touch, as if our hosts were seeing us to the door the way they would in their own home. For me, that personal touch was the most impressive moment of an impressive evening.

Which means I may be trekking out to Burnaby Heights more often in the future.

Parisian Cafés

Les Deux Magots

Every year around this time, I get homesick for Paris, but this year, my mind has been on Paris far more than usual.

I’m sure it’s obvious why: the media coverage on that city has been pretty much nonstop since the Paris attacks a month ago. Attention ramped up again this past weekend when 195 nations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, adopted what’s being called the Paris Agreement.

In short: all eyes ― not just mine ― are on Paris right now. And so, bear with me as I write (yet) another post on my second-favourite city in the world.

Le Depart Saint-Michel

Whenever I think back to my winter in Paris, I think of the impressive light displays put up to celebrate the holiday season. The many elaborately decorated Parisian cafés were particularly impressive, with nothing ever done in half measures. (Is that a French thing? Or a “keeping up with the Joneses” thing? I dunno, but I sure enjoyed the results.)

Grand Café Capucines

Parisian cafés are special places. In the mind of most visitors to Paris, there is nothing more French than sitting down in a café and ordering un café or un verre de vin. One quickly learns ― and adapts to the idea ― that your one drink buys you the table for as long as you want it.

Café Interior

Which could be hours. Whether you sit there alone, reading or writing or people-watching, or sit there with your family or friends, it doesn’t matter. You will not be rushed. Time stops.

Wine, Tea and Raspberry Flan

Because they serve beer and wine in addition to all manner of caffeine, Parisian cafés are, technically speaking, café-bars. They also have complete kitchens, which means you can get a three-course meal any time of day. (Cafés are open from morning until late at night, whereas Parisian restaurants generally close for the afternoon.)

Foie de Veau

As an oftentimes solo traveller, what I especially like about Parisian cafés is the lack of stigma to eating alone, which has not been my experience in other European countries.

Wine Glass

The oldest café in Paris is Le Procope in the 6e arrondissement. It opened for business in 1686, shortly after coffee was introduced to the French. My New World brain can’t quite fathom a restaurant that’s been around since a century before the French Revolution.

Le Procope

In time, Parisian cafés became the centre of French discourse and intellectual life, the place where politics and art and philosophy were discussed. Today, there are more than 12,000 cafés in Paris ― one on every corner, it seems, in some arrondissements.

Chocolat Chaud

The Paris attacks of last month were horrific and shocking. What was especially horrific and shocking is that Parisians were attacked while enjoying the very essence of what makes them Parisian: having a drink in a café.

Just as I cannot imagine Christmas in Paris without dazzling light displays, I cannot imagine a Paris where fear and trauma have overtaken the café experience. I hope and pray that the magic I felt five Decembers ago in the City of Light is still there. And my Christmas wish for all Parisians is simply this: that they spend the holiday eating and drinking and laughing and loving.

In other words, that they have a Joyeux Noël.

Les Deux Magots Close-up

Dishing: Ask for Luigi

Ask for Luigi

Here’s what happens when you visit a review-worthy restaurant shortly before leaving on your summer holidays: the blog post you wrote sits in your draft folder for months and months until you completely forget about it. We ate at Ask for Luigi on a beautifully hot summer evening last August. Here is what I wrote the next morning.

Note to the host of Ask for Luigi: ignoring the woman for the guy she’s with is not smart in the current century, especially when the gentleman in question is crouched down and clearly pre-occupied with his phone.

That ten-second encounter almost put me off, but I set my ego aside and told the host my name and the number in my party. Ask for Luigi takes walk-in guests only, but anyone not accommodated in the first seating ― we managed to snag the last table ― is texted when their table is ready.

Voted one of Vancouver’s best new restaurants when chef and co-owner J.C. Poirier opened in late 2013, Ask for Luigi is one of the bright spots in Vancouver’s transforming Railtown. Once we were seated, the service was beyond attentive ― our table was wiped down after each course and the reflexes of our server were quicker than all three of us combined when yours truly clumsily knocked over her Spritz ― the Venetian-style aperitivo made with Aperol, Prosecco, and soda water that is the only option for a before-dinner drink.

Octopus CarpaccioThe antipasti orders came almost too quickly ― with only 36 seats the emphasis seemed to be on turn-over ― but nothing was going to make us wolf down these delectable platters of perfection. We savoured every bite of anchovy-infused octopus carpaccio, sliced paper thin and liberally sprinkled with baby basil. Luigi’s famous golf ball–sized meatballs were dense and chewy. Smothered with a rich, smooth, crimson tomato sauce and accompanied by toasted Luigi’s MeatballsTuscan-style bread, they were marred only by the crunch of eggshell in my first bite. Geometrically correct cubes of crispy pork ciccioli, moist and wet on the inside, crunchy on the outside, were served with canary-yellow saffron aioli and deep-fried shishito peppers — a sweet green pepper about the size of my little finger. About one in ten shishito peppers are spicy — my sister was the lucky one in our group.

Pork Ciccioli

On to the next course. Tagliatelle with rabbit and olives was flawless, the olive taste subtle but present, and the shredded rabbit liberally coated with a creamy sauce. The rye penne, on the other hand, was overcooked, although not the creamy egg yolk placed on top, nor the gently sautéed broccolini and perfectly crisped guanciale. The pasta special ― conchiglie with garlic sausage, pale kernels of organic corn, and black summer truffle ― was the surprise of the night with its spicy kick and sweet taste of summer. All pasta is made fresh daily and served family style. (Gluten-free options are available.)

Pasta

Two courses would be enough to fill any sane person, but we soldiered on. The vanilla-bean panna cotta was particularly creamy and made complete by almond biscotti and delicately stewed prunes. Chocolate budino ― a flourless cake with 70 percent chocolate ― was as intense as you would expect a flourless cake with that much chocolate to be. A mini loaf of warm olive oil cake, topped with a quenelle of rich ricotta cheese, was nestled on a bed of glazed orange slices.

Dessert

The rustic décor was pleasing ― the desserts were served on mismatched china and the wine in small juice-sized glasses ― but pity the poor sods stuck in the back corner, too far from the wide-open windows or floor fans to get any respite from the August heat. Extra entertainment (in addition to yours truly spilling her drink at the start of the meal) was provided when my dining companions recognized a well-known actress sitting behind my right shoulder ― although, she wasn’t so famous that they were sure of her name. Each then whipped out their respective smart phones to check if they were right, while I remained focus on photographing our food.

We’ll go back to Ask for Luigi, but I’m thinking only if we can squeeze into the first seating again; I’m not convinced it would be worth an hour or more wait.

Note: The benefit of waiting three months to post a review is that I can change my assessment: I have decided I do want to go back to Ask for Luigi, regardless of the wait time, as long as I am with people whose company I enjoy. (Which is usually what happens when I eat out, so I should be all right.)

Spritz

Stellenbosch

Stellenbosch Vineyards

If I had any doubts I was on the other side of the world when I arrived in South Africa near winter’s end almost five years ago, they were put to bed 48 hours later after a day of wine tasting. That’s when I discovered how topsy-turvy I was ― in South Africa, grape harvest takes place between February and April.

Sauvignon Blanc Harvest

South Africa’s first vineyards were planted some 350 years ago by French Huguenots who brought vine cuttings with them from France. As of last year, the country is ranked seventh in the world by volume of wine produced. (Canada isn’t even in the top 30.)

It hasn’t been an easy ride to seventh place, however. The economic sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid regime nearly destroyed its wine industry and are still having an impact. Many producers sold their grapes to cooperatives that produced poorly blended bulk wine ― what became known as “supermarket wine.” The practice continued for several years after sanctions were lifted so that, even today, some 20 years later, the country is still trying to shed its reputation as a producer of plonk.

Like the BC winemakers after the FTA and NAFTA, South African winemakers knew they had to start over. They ripped out their vines and replanted to improve the quality of their grapes. Nowadays, these winemakers talk about their industry as having two eras: before Mandela and after.

Tractor

Stellenbosch is one of three wine regions in the Western Cape wine region of South Africa. Its Mediterranean-like climate, with hot dry summers and cool wet winters, is well-suited for growing grapes, the most popular of which is Chenin blanc. Evidence of how far the region has come since apartheid: at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards, Stellenbosch wineries earned 181 medals, of which two were international trophies, one was a regional trophy, and two were gold medals.

Immediately prior to my arrival in South Africa, I’d spent three months in France, imbibing in, well, let’s just say, a lot of French wine. Even so, I was extremely impressed by the wine I tasted in South Africa and was surprised by the number of vineyards we drove past during our day-long wine-tasting tour through Stellenbosch.

Meerlust

The first winery we stopped at was Meerlust. Established in 1756, it is one of South Africa’s oldest wineries and has been in the same family for eight generations. It is also of the few wineries that maintained its production of fine wine throughout the apartheid regime, despite the lack of access to world markets.

Bilton was our next stop, and we paid a little extra to pair our wine tasting with chocolate. After the tasting, we had lunch ― most of the wineries also have a restaurant on-site ― and I enjoyed my first taste of bobotie. A curried meatloaf with a custard-like topping, bobotie is to South Africa what poutine is to Canada.

Next was Warwick Estates, which dates back to 1771. In the 1970s, a South African and his Canadian wife ― a former ski instructor from Alberta ― worked hard to transform the farm into a winery of some distinction. That ski instructor, Norma Ratcliffe, is still making wine and is the only female member of the Cape Winemakers Guild. Today, Warwick Estates is considered one of the best wineries in the world, known for its Bordeaux-style blends regularly served at South African state dinners. Sadly, the wine is not available in Canada, despite the estate’s best efforts to crack the nut that is our country’s government-controlled liquor boards.

L’Avenir was our last stop of the day, its name a tribute to the French Huguenot heritage of the region. Along with Warwick, it was the prettiest winery we visited.

L'Avenir

Stellenbosch is rimmed by mountains, and its landscape reminded me of BC’s Okanagan. The distinctive design of the Cape Dutch architecture, with its white, rounded gables, set the place apart from any other wine region I’ve visited, however.

Lake at L'Avenir

After returning to Canada, I told my local wine seller that I was seriously disappointed with the selection of South African wine in Vancouver, at which point I was told, “there’s no market for it.”

And so, since then, I’ve been on a one-woman mission to create some demand for South African wine in this country.

The Okanagan

Okanagan Lake

When I was growing up in Edmonton, I knew the Okanagan as the place where Albertans headed to every summer in droves. It was considered the perfect family vacation destination by the parents of my school friends, who went there every summer and came back with stories of long days spent swimming and boating in lakes. (My family went to the mountains instead ― a choice my parents made that I personally had no issues with.)

Nowadays, the Okanagan is still a popular summer lake district, but that dry, sunny, Mediterranean-like climate that makes it so popular with boaters and swimmers is also what makes the region perfectly suited to growing grapes.

Osoyoos Lake

Those grapes get harvested in the fall, and this year the Okanagan had a bumper crop. While setting a record for the earliest start of harvest ever (August 12) ― thanks to a hot and dry spring and summer ― this year’s grapes were smaller than usual. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Smaller grapes mean less product, but it can also mean a higher quality wine because the flavour and colour is concentrated.

Fall is also wine festival time. If you happened to be in the Okanagan earlier this month, you could have participated in some of the 125 events that make up the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival with 20,000 of your closest wine-loving friends. This year was the festival’s 35th anniversary.

Yup. That’s 35 years of wine festivalling. But it might surprise you to learn that the tradition of winemaking in the Okanagan goes back to before the birth of Canada. The first person to plant grapes in the Okanagan was Father Charles Pandosy, a Catholic missionary who came to the area in 1859. He needed wine, as all priests do, to be able to administer Mass, and so he planted himself a vineyard.

The first commercial winery ― Calona Vineyards ― was established in Kelowna in 1932 and is still in business. In 1968, Nk’Mip (in-ka-meep) Cellars was established in Osoyoos. Fourteen years later, there were 14 wineries operating in the Okanagan.

And the quality of Okanagan wine back in the 1980s? Well, let’s be generous and call it plonk.

Then along came free trade. It turns out that the Free Trade Agreement of 1988 was the best thing to happen to BC’s wine industry. After losing their preferred status in BC liquor stores, Okanagan winemakers knew they had to improve their product ― fast ― if they were going to complete on the world stage of vintners. So what did they do? They pulled up two-thirds of their vines and replanted with vines that produced better quality grapes suitable for making premium quality wine.

Wine Glasses

And here’s the amazing thing: the BC winemaking industry exploded. There were 17 wineries in 1990; by 1994, that number had doubled. It doubled again by 2000 and again by 2008. As of last year, there were 254 wineries in operation in the Okanagan with 10,259 acres of vines planted. (To be honest, the rapid expansion of vineyards is beginning to threaten BC’s fruit industry because long-time fruit growers are pulling up their orchards to plant vines. They know they can earn far more from growing grapes than they can from growing peaches and cherries.)

The awards started pouring in early on. The first big one was the 1994 Avery Trophy for Best Chardonnay in the World at London’s International Wine and Spirit Competition, awarded to Kelowna’s Mission Hill Winery. At the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards (the world’s biggest competition with over 15,000 wines entered in 2014), Okanagan wineries took home 105 medals, including three regional trophies and four gold medals. (By comparison, Californian wineries took home 83 medals that year, none of which were trophies or gold medals.)

Okanagan wines are rather pricey ― some would argue overpriced ― for what you get. But here’s what I’ve learned: those high prices are due to the cost of labour and land. BC vineyard land is the most expensive in the world after Europe. And so, here’s a pro-tip: if you are on a budget, stick to the older Okanagan wineries for more affordable wines. They aren’t cheaper because the wines are lower quality ― they’re cheaper because those wineries bought land back in the 1990s before it got crazy expensive. Their overhead is much lower.

The Okanagan is divided into five subregions: Kelowna, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Falls, Golden Mile, and Black Sage Bench/Osoyoos. I made it to four of these subregions last summer on my way home from Alberta. Here’s a look at some of the wineries I got to. (Click on the first photo at top left to open up the slide show.)

In all, I visited nine wineries and did seven tastings over two days, starting in Osoyoos and finishing 120 km to the north in West Kelowna. I didn’t bother doing a tasting at either Quail’s Gate or Mission Hill ― their wines are readily available in Vancouver, and both tasting rooms, though impressive, were a bit of a zoo. I expected that, because the larger wineries attract the largest crowds, but I stopped at them anyways because I’d been told both were impressive operations and worth a look-see.

But here’s another pro-tip: the best wine-tasting experiences are to be had at the smallest of wineries. Serendipity, for example, is a place that holds up to its name. The tasting room is simple and unpretentious ― a cordoned-off end of a storage shed ― but I had the complete and undivided attention of the wine seller. That experience was wine-buying at its most fun.

Another winery worth a stop is Pentâge Winery on the Naramata Bench. I stopped here on the recommendation of my brother, who claimed it made the best Cabernet Franc he’d ever tasted. A stop at this winery involves a long, windy drive up the side of the mountain, and then a long, steep, windy ride down the side of the mountain that probably scares off timid and cautious drivers. In fact, the winemaker admitted that some visitors won’t even attempt the driveway and instead park their car up top and walk down. I found the tasting room at Pentâge a most pleasant oasis and, knowing it was going to be my last stop of the day, I took my time and chatted with the winemaker for a long while. That stop was the highlight of my two days of wine tasting. (Sadly, my camera was acting up and all my photos are out of focus.)

I won’t have the ways and means to do an Okanagan trip every summer, but I do know this: my wine-buying trip of this past summer has certainly opened my eyes to the best way to buy wine.

Armchair Traveller: The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry as a Christmas present. She said she knew I would like it.

She was right. I devoured the book.

I picked it up again last month when I was writing my post about the film Julie and Julia. I flipped through it, rereading bits here and there, but was stopped cold by this sentence near the beginning of the book:

With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit.

I immediately sat down and began to reread the book from start to finish.

Kathleen Flinn wrote The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu in 2005. A journalist by trade, she based her account on the journal entries she wrote during her time in Paris, the audio tapes she recorded during demonstration classes, and the interviews she conducted with students, school staff, and alumni. The result is a highly entertaining and enlightening account of one American student’s experiences while studying at one of the top culinary schools on the planet.

Studying at Le Cordon Bleu is not for the faint of heart. The curriculum is daunting, the expectations are high, and the classes are taught in French. Flinn completed the three-part Diplôme de Cuisine (Cuisine Diploma); each part (Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine) is three months long. One can also study pastry and complete a three-part Diplôme de Pâtisserie, or do both cuisine and pastry, and receive Le Grand Diplôme.

The binder of more than a hundred recipes each student is given at the beginning of the course contains only lists of ingredients. Students are expected to make notes during the demonstration class, then repeat the recipe ― exactly ― during their practical class. Like I said, not for the faint of heart. When Flinn explains to the chef she has never filleted a fish before in her life, he replies, “I can tell. You should practice ― at home.” Another chef yells at her after a particularly trying class, “Vous perdez votre temps!” (You are wasting your time.)

I learned some interesting bits of trivia while reading this book. For instance, did you know that quiche comes from the German word for “cake”? Or that the sharper your knife when you dice onions, the less likely you are to cry? (Cue the book’s title.) Provençal cuisine ― with its olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and saffron ― has its origins from the time of the Romans, who occupied the region and named it Nostra Provincia (our province).

Back to the beginning: Flinn lost her job and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu (using up all her savings to do so) with the encouragement of her then-boyfriend (now husband) who remembered it was something she had always said she wanted to do. When she protests that she knows no one in Paris, he merely says, “You’ll know me. If you want me to, I’ll go with you.”

(Sigh. Not only is this book a food/travel memoir, but it’s a love story as well.)

“Living is like driving. You have to pick a lane,” Flinn’s grandmother used to tell her. At the start of Basic Cuisine, Flinn wonders if she picked the right lane, but by the end of this book, you know she has. The chef who told her she was wasting her time becomes her greatest mentor and she thanks him, in the end, for being so tough on her. She was already an accomplished food journalist before studying at Le Cordon Bleu; her culinary studies only cemented that career and proved to her she had found her bliss.

So why did the sentence I read earlier this summer (“With that, I lost a job I was desperate to quit”) make me drop everything and reread this book in pretty much one sitting?

It’s because earlier this summer I found out I was going to lose my job ― a job I didn’t know I was desperate to quit until I lost it. This past winter I was sinking deeper and deeper into a funk about what to do about this job I thought I wanted, and the only thing that was giving me any enjoyment was cooking.

Yup. I’ve been spending my weekends recuperating from my day job by hunkering down in my tiny condo-sized kitchen. Sadly, the most appealing aspect of all this cooking was that I was alone. Somewhere around Easter I realized I needed to avoid all contact with people on weekends, for the simple reason that when you’re an introvert, and you work in a small, high-energy office, it takes you two days minimum to recover before you are ready for Monday morning. Obviously, that’s not a tenable situation if you want to have any kind of social life.

Yesterday was my last day at work. I don’t exactly know what I will be doing next, although I’m pretty sure I won’t be running off to Paris to go to cooking school anytime soon. But this much I do know: there will be a lot more writing and travelling in my future.

And probably some cooking, too.

If you’re even minimally interested in cooking, I recommend you read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. (Yes, there are recipes, too.) And if you’re at a crossroads in your life and are wondering what lane to choose next, I highly recommend you read it.

E. Dehillerin

Dehillerin Exterior

There is one scene in Julie & Julia that cracks me up every time I watch the film because it’s so far off from the truth. It’s when Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle are (supposedly) shopping in E. Dehillerin, the famous cookware store that has been supplying French chefs with the tools of their trade since 1820. The store in the movie is pristine and light and airy, with lots of room for Julia Child to wildly swing her shopping basket.

That scene wasn’t filmed in the actual store, as anyone who has ever shopped at E. Dehillerin can tell you. The actual store is much darker and dingier and more cramped than the one shown in the film.

In the words of David Lebovitz, the only way to enter E. Dehillerin is to “brace yourself and step inside.” My sister and I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon in December 2010, moments after we had stumbled ― also by accident ― into Saint-Eustache, a magnificent church in the 1er arrondissement.

Here’s how I described my introduction to Dehillerin in the journal I kept that winter:

We came around a corner and there was heaven: E. Dehillerin, which I had read about. It’s the cookware store in Paris where all the pros shop, including (it’s been said) Julia Child.

But it was massively packed; I’ve never been in such a crowded store. The basement was dusty and musty and filled with massive industrial-sized stock pots (and not as crowded as upstairs).

Upstairs, I tried to look at the knives, but you could barely get past anyone to get near the counter where they were displayed. (And “display” is a bit generous. They were simply plunked in wooden bins of various sizes and in various groupings.) We got out of there and decided on lunch in a place in Rue Montorgeuil.

A week later, I returned, this time with a friend who was spending Christmas with my sister and me. Not only did I want her to experience the store for herself, but I had decided I was going to buy me some knives as a Christmas present to myself. We wandered in and out of several cookware and bakeware stores that morning ― they are all congregated near E. Dehillerin because there used to be a giant market nearby where all the Parisian restaurateurs used to shop for their daily menus. The market is long gone, but the shops ― and the restaurants ― remain.

Dehillerin was insanely crowded on my second visit as well and my friend and I quickly gave up on my plan to buy some knives.

But, I was determined. I did some online research and learned that persistence was the only way to get results when shopping at E. Dehillerin. And so, I returned.

Back to my journal:

January 29. Saturday. I still wanted my knives from Dehillerin and, as they are closed on Sundays and I was leaving on Monday, this was the last possible day I could buy them. I’d put it off as long as I could as it seemed so intimidating, given everything I’d read about the place, and how crazy crowded it had been on my two previous visits. But … I persevered. In I went, and it seemed a bit crowded at first, but then all of a sudden it emptied out and I had all the room I wanted to pick out the knives I wanted.

I checked the price of one in the book at the end of the aisle, went back to the bins of knives, decided on another knife and then thought, “Oh, I don’t care how much it costs. This is the one I want.” That was the 20 cm chef knife. I then chose a 10 cm paring knife, and a sharpening steel, and took them to the table where they wrapped your purchases.

The clerk said something to me in French. When he realized I hadn’t understood a word, he said, “English?” “Yes,” I replied. He then explained that the sharpening steel I had selected was too small for the size of my knife. For only a few euros more, I could get the right-sized steel made by the same company. I said, “OK,” he went to grab the right-sized sharpening steel, looked up the codes in his book posted on the pillar at the end of the aisle, wrote them down on a slip of paper and handed it to me.

I took the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter and she took my payment. Two knives and a sharpening steel for 86 euros. Earlier that month, I had checked the prices of knives in the housewares department at Galeries Lafayette and a chef knife there went for 100 euros alone.

So, very pleased with myself, I took the receipt back to the table, another clerk jammed each knife tip into a wine cork and then wrapped the knives in brown paper. Off I went, the happy owner of some proper kitchen knives at last. The fact that I bought them in Paris, and that they have the Dehillerin name engraved on the blade, is a bonus.

That afternoon is one of my favourite shopping memories while travelling.

No, wait. It is one of my favourite shopping memories ever. And the best part? I get to take an imaginary walk through Dehillerin every time I use those knives.

Which is every day.

Dehillerin Interior

Reel Life: Julie & Julia

Julie & JuliaI had the opportunity this past week to introduce some friends to the film Julie & Julia. I was secretly pleased when they selected that DVD out of the pile I had brought, but I had no idea when I grabbed it at the last minute that most of the group had never seen the film.

Julie & Julia was Nora Ephron’s last film and stars the legendary Meryl Streep and the charming Amy Adams. It was Ephron’s producer who had the brilliant idea to combine into one screenplay two memoirs published around the same time. Julia Child’s My Life in France is about her life in post-war France, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen evolved from Julie Powell’s blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in post-9/11 Queens, New York. Beyond their names, Julie and Julia had in common the love and support of a devoted husband, a love of food, and the need to find some meaningful work to fill their days.

Early in the film, Julie Powell’s husband declares that “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child” ― and that’s precisely what makes the film so entertaining. Although I’m as fascinated as the next traveller about the daily routine of life as a New Yorker, the depiction of Julie Powell’s long subway commute and soulless work cubicle ring a little too close to home. But when the action switches to France, you’re transported to another time and place to witness the transformation of Julia Child, ex-pat American wife, to Julia Child, chef, author, and TV star.

Julia Child’s introduction to French food ― mere hours after she arrives in France ― is sole meunière. The epiphany she experiences in the look, smell, and taste of that first meal is, for me, the essential moment of the film. And it reminded me of the moment when I had my own epiphany about French cuisine. It was in a small restaurant in Perpignan where two friends and I shared a meal after a long day of sight-seeing. I ordered a tomato salad. It looked so simple ― a single layer of tomato slices on a small plate, sprinkled with an herb vinaigrette ― but I knew with my first bite that I was tasting something unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. The French don’t make simple tomato salads; they create spectacular tomato salads.

As much as my friends enjoyed Julie & Julia, they were a little more circumspect than I about the film; one remarked that she wouldn’t have reacted nearly as well as Julie Powell if the first words out of her partner’s mouth after disappearing for two days following a heated argument were, “What’s for dinner?”

As for me, whenever I’m homesick for French food, I’ll be (re)watching Julie & Julia.

West End Farmers Market

Strawberries

I know summer has well and truly arrived when the West End Farmers Market returns.

West End Farmers Market

As it did today.

Asparagus

And it’ll be here, every Saturday, until the end of October.

Lettuce

Oh joy, oh bliss. Shopping at your local farmers market is the best way to maintain a 100-mile diet.

Zucchini

Besides the West End Farmers Market where I shop (located alongside Nelson Park), Vancouver has six other summer markets. (There are also two winter markets.) You can buy fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, meat, poultry, and fish, and artisan products such as olives or fruit jams or soap. Vancouverites spend $8 million a year at their farmers markets and support 265 local farmers and artisans in doing so.

Vendor and Shopper

The best part? Everything tastes like summer. Truly.

Go on. What are you waiting for?

20 Years