I’m heading off to Paris tomorrow for my third summer in a row. I’m really looking forward to it–seeing my friends and colleagues, exploring a new neighborhood, attending a new French school in the evenings, and of course, the very difficult process of finding my favorite neighborhood baguette. It’s a rough life, I tell you.
My preparation for this trip has been characterized by a complete lack of preparation. I started packing (and thinking about packing) today, have yet to do the deep-clean of my apartment to get it ready for my subletter, and my paperwork is, shall we say, less than organized. But the weather in Boston is disgusting (hazy, hot, and humid), I have had to do a ton of work before leaving, and my social life has definitely taken priority over logistics-related activities. Maybe my apartment will clean itself…
Anyway, I’m planning to keep up with this blog again for the summer, so stay tuned for updates, stories, and other deliciousness!
There’s something about a snowy day that automatically signals certain kinds of cooking. Last year before a major storm, Trader Joe’s ran out of brown sugar, flour, chocolate chips, and soup supplies like stock and carrots.
So given that it snowed last night and I’m still ecstatic about my new cache of free time, today was a day for projects. After cleaning closets and rearranging some furniture, I decided to use some dark chocolate that was leftover from a brownie recipe to make chocolate-dipped pretzels, since I recently acquired a candy thermometer and wanted to try tempering chocolate after reading an article about it in the New York Times. Tempering gives the chocolate the glossy appearance you see on professional candies, and helps avoid the dull, white-speckled surface that indicates the chocolate has “bloomed.” To temper the chocolate, you basically bring the temperature up, then down, then up again to encourage the creation of “beta” crystals (and no, I have no idea what that actually means).
I was a little disappointed in the candy thermometer. It is made for things that cook at really high temperatures (up to 300 degrees), so the scale is rather small and not so exact within the range of 82-115 degrees, the temperatures at which the chocolate needs to rise to and then drop to for tempering. Also, it’s really hard to keep the chocolate in the right temperature range for dipping. And I’m not exactly sure whether my chocolate tempered correctly, since my apartment is too hot (damn steam heat) for it to harden appropriately. It was fun, though! Though note to self: next time, grease the cooling rack in order to avoid having to free each pretzel individually by sticking a chopstick through one of the pretzel holes and making a little lever to free the pretzel.
What I was unequivocally successful at, though, was making a gigantic mess.
Also, I got a little creative and used some pearl sugar that I bought in Paris to sprinkle on the pretzels and make a sort of salted-pretzel look.
After a looong semester, followed by an intense finals week, I am officially (mostly) free from school obligations until…well, let’s not get into that now. The important thing is that, as of Thursday at 4:32 pm when I e-mailed in my last take-home exam, I was officially on vacation!
The past few days have been a happy blur of decidedly non-academic fun. Thursday night a friend and I went to see the Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet. Yesterday (after staying in my PJs until 2pm) I met some friends from school for drinks, met a friend for dinner, and then went to another friend’s Christmas party. And today, after one of my friend’s a cappella groups sang a concert in Coolidge Corner, I had a bunch of people over to my apartment for the first totally guilt-free lazy Saturday afternoon in a long time.
It was so great to have the time to make things for the party. I made homemade baguettes and ciabatta, hummus with cumin seeds and pine nuts, a deliciously sweet-spicy pretzel and nut mix, mulled wine, and gingerbread cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. I had made King Arthur Flour’s gingerbread recipe a few months ago, and when I tasted its deep-dark spiciness and moistness, I thought that the perfect crown would be a swirl of cream cheese frosting, and that it might take well to cupcake form. So with a little experimentation on baking time, last-minute substitution for an unexpected molasses deficit, and some trolling the internet for a cream cheese frosting recipe, I came up with this winning combo. Not only was it super tasty, but I have to say that it’s one of the prettiest-looking desserts I’ve ever made.
GINGERBREAD CUPCAKES WITH CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
Cupcakes (adapted from King Arthur Flour Company):
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 stick unsalted butter, melted
- 3/4 cup molasses
- 3 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup buttermilk (I used kefir)
Preheat oven to 350. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with foil wrappers and spray insides of wrappers lightly with cooking spray.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Melt butter in a heatproof measuring cup. Add molasses and fresh ginger, and beat to combine. Pour into dry ingredients and mix until moistened. Add water and stir until incorporated.
Whisk together egg and buttermilk (I did it in the measuring cup, to save one dish). Stir into batter until evenly combined. (optionally, here you can stir in 1/2 cup chopped candied ginger. While I loved this idea, the thought of chopping sticky uncrystallized candied ginger–all I had–was quite unappealing, so I left it out)
Fill each muffin wrapper with about 1/4 cup batter (there will be some left over, probably about one cupcakes’ worth. Just a note, the batter is excellent raw. Not that I would know). Bake cupcakes for about 20 minutes, until centers are set and a cake tester comes out clean. When done, remove from muffin tin and let cool on wire rack. When completely cool, frost with cream cheese frosting (recipe below).
CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
- 1 stick butter, softened
- 1 8-ounce block cream cheese, softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 cups confectioner’s sugar, or more to taste
Using an electric mixer, beat together butter and cream cheese until completely combined and fluffy. Add vanilla and beat until combined. Add confectioner’s sugar 1/2 cup at a time, until reaches desired sweetness. I thought it was just right with 2 cups sugar, but you could add up to 3. Put frosting in fridge to chill until ready to frost cupcakes.
To frost, cut the top off a 1-gallon zip-top plastic bag. Put the bag inside a drinking glass and fold the remaining bag over the edge of a glass, securing with a rubber band or, um, hair elastic. Spoon frosting into bag, smushing down to get out air pockets. When cup is full, remove bag from glass, squeeze to push frosting into the corner of the bag, and snip off the corner. Swirl each cupcake with frosting and put in the fridge to set frosting. Before serving, dust each cupcake with cinnamon and a little piece of crystallized or uncrystallized candied ginger.
The other day, I got a one-line email from Danielle:
“Any chance you could make your immovable feast move again?”
And then I realized that it really has been quite awhile. I originally drafted this very post in September, but never got around to posting it because <insert excuses here>. However, I’m currently baking two loaves of bread for a dinner tomorrow, and there seems like no better time than when my apartment smells like a bakery to motivate me to share the wonderfulness of this bread with the rest of the world.
So here’s the impassioned introduction I wrote in September, about a month after I got back from Paris:
“I would rather not eat bread at all than eat a cottony baguette or a piece of sandwich bread that you can crumple up into a ball the size of a mirabelle plum (about the diameter of a half-dollar). Even at reputed Boston-area bakeries like When Pigs Fly or Clear Flour or Whole Foods or Hi-Rise, I can’t get that excited. I find the bread at Clear Flour to be too crusty without a sturdy mie (the soft middle of the bread), and When Pigs Fly is either too dense or tastes flat. I have yet to find a baguette anywhere that is both crusty outside and soft inside, and it’s hard to justify spending $4 on a baguette that was never that good to begin with and will go stale in less than a day. So the only alternative is to make my own.”
It’s definitely possible that I caught a little bit of that French scoffing at anything that is a poor imitation of something the French have perfected.
Although the no-knead bread craze seemed to have come and gone a few years ago with Mark Bittman’s New York Times article, I didn’t have a cast-iron pot, a necessary ingredient to making the perfect no-knead bread at home, until my grandparents gave me theirs when they moved last fall, and so I never got in on the trend despite multiple tastings of Kira and Colin’s stunning results. After I procured the pot, I made the original Bittman bread last spring, and while it was absolutely beautiful–golden crust, big holes–it tasted like nothing and the mie was kind of wet.
Enter Cook’s Illustrated. With some kitchen chemistry and a lot of test batches, they augmented the traditional ingredients in a European boule–water, flour, yeast, and salt–with beer and white vinegar. And a book I got from the library, Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-free, No-knead Breads, recommended the additional step of letting the mixed dough rest in the refrigerator overnight prior to letting it loose on its long, slow rise. The increased depth of flavor is remarkable (I did a side-by-side taste test. Yes, yes I did), though my Kneadlessly Simple loaf was a rather wan color and tasted slightly off. So I’m sticking with the basic Cook’s formula. But with all this expertise taken together, I can say that mine is a truly exceptional loaf of bread, one that I would gladly pay for. Except that by my calculations it costs, oh, about $0.30 per loaf to make. Also, since I’m quite short on time these days between work, school, and life, this bread fits excellently into my routine. In fact, the “active time” is–not lying–about six minutes. Maybe.
This bread takes quite well to adaptations. I once made it with crumbled bacon and caramelized onions, and more recently with chopped kalamata olives and fresh rosemary. Just throw in any add-ins when mixing all the ingredients together. I’ve also been experimenting with different beers, to great success. The original recipe calls for a light-flavored lager, but since I can’t make myself buy Bud Light or Miller High Life (bad freshman year memories), I’ve very successfully used hefeweizens and other wheat beers (accentuates the wheatiness of the flour), ambers and other darker lagers (makes for a deeper taste), and even some beers that are edging towards IPAs.
Also, this makes a pretty amazing house-gift, potluck contribution, or way to welcome someone to your home. Not to brag, but the combination of visual appeal, taste, and that magical allure of homemade bread just can’t be beat. (see evidence on Julia’s flickr stream)
ALMOST NO-KNEAD BREAD
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
- 3 cups unbleached white flour
- 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast (also labeled “bread-machine” or “rapid-rise”)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons room-temperature water
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lager or other light-flavored beer
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
Thoroughly blend flour, yeast, and salt. Add water, beer, and vinegar, and stir vigorously until a shaggy ball forms (I use my dough whisk but a wooden spoon would probably be fine). Let rest in the fridge for 3 hours to overnight, to develop the flavor (optional). Then let rise at room temperature for 12-18 hours, until the dough is big, bubbly, and sticky (and warm when you put your hand over it…love that fermentation!).
Lightly flour a cutting board or counter, and scrape the dough onto the flour, dusting the top with more flour to prevent your hands from sticking. Knead 10-15 times until soft and smooth, dusting with more flour as necessary (the dough is looser than a traditional bread dough). Coat a 10-inch nonstick frying pan with cooking spray, and deposit the dough into the pan. Let rise for 2 hours or until doubled in size.
Thirty minutes before baking, place an 8-10-inch covered Dutch oven or other cast-iron casserole with a tight-fitting lid in the oven (I’ve also heard that a cast-iron skillet covered tightly with foil will work). Preheat to 500 degrees.
When the oven is preheated, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Dump the bread dough in–it will make a satisfying sizzling noise. With a pair of scissors, cut a big X on top of the dough. Then lower the oven temperature to 425, replace the lid on the pot, and bake, undisturbed, for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, rotate the pan 180 degrees, and bake another 20-30 minutes, until the loaf is a beautifully dark golden brown.
Remove bread from pot and place on a cooling rack. Cool completely before slicing. And you might get funny looks for doing this, but if you put your ear near the bread as it cools, you can hear it crackling and whistling. Pretty cool.
This freezes very well, though the crust isn’t quite as shatteringly crisp post-defrosting. I cut each loaf into quarters, wrap the quarters individually in foil, and take one out in the morning so that by the time I get home at night, I have perfectly defrosted, homemade bread waiting for me. With a smear of salted butter, it’s pretty close to heaven on earth.
It’s been a week of not-so-successful kitchen adventures. First, the tofu I was going to use for a stir-fry on Tuesday night smelled like apple cider when I opened the box, so I had to chuck it. Then I ended up getting home super late from my TA session for physiology anyway and caved and got spicy tofu pad thai from the restaurant downstairs instead of cooking (which was a great choice–it was totally delicious). Then last night I tried (again) on the stir-fry and was aiming to use cooked spaghetti squash like glass noodles, but the squash ended up all clumping together in an unappetizing blob that tasted like nothing.
But tonight takes “unappetizing blob” to a new level. I had visions of creamy, dreamy polenta, topped with kale and caramelized onions and bacon. Well, the polenta was neither creamy nor dreamy, and the kale refused to de-puff and ended up tasting kind of terrible and grassy. However, it was not as terrible as when I went back to the stove to clean up and saw the state of the rest of the polenta…and then my inner five-year-old went to town:
And no matter how much kale looks like it’s glowing with health, there was something about this concoction that was completely unappetizing:
Oddly enough, when I was in Paris, I didn’t cook that much. Salads (both simple and complicated), pastas (one memorable one was spicy chorizo, sweet onions, and spinach with mini pasta shells that cradled the sausage cubes and onions), picnic dinners (cheese + bread + charcuterie + vegetable or fruit + macaron or a chocolate bonbon), the occasional vegetable dish, or a gussied-up Picard meal were my standbys when I ate at home. And sometimes this was borne out of necessity, like when it was Sunday night and I had just gotten home from Spain with almost no food in the house and everything was closed, and I ate couscous soaked in hot water, with butter and honey and a splash of milk, for dinner at 11pm (actually, that was surprisingly excellent). I don’t know why I didn’t feel like cooking much, given my love for playing in the kitchen and the abundance of excellent raw material at my disposal. There could be a million reasons–the lack of any knives in my kitchen besides flimsy dinner knives, being weirded out by the convection oven, the variety of foods you could buy cheaply that required no cooking, or a desire not to amass large quantities of ingredients I would have to leave behind. I ate very well, but I can’t say that there was a whole lot of creativity behind it.
In any case, since coming back to Boston I’ve been on a cooking jag, with my beloved chef’s knife and jars of spices and tiny but well-equipped kitchen set up exactly the way I like it and working at full tilt. In particular, my freezer has been filling up quickly with fully and partially-prepared foods that I’ll be able to eat once school gets busy. Two different loaves of no-knead bread (one white and one rosemary-kalamata olive), pizza dough, a yeasted olive oil tart crust, roasted tomato confit, baked oatmeal. I thought I’d be freezing a lot of vegetables from my CSA, but so far I’ve been pretty much using up my share by the end of the week. Except the five tomatillos still knocking around in my vegetable drawer. Any suggestions for using those up are much appreciated.
About that baked oatmeal. It’s one of my standby recipes–perfect for breakfast, or a quick post-work, pre-workout snack, or a late evening study snack when there’s a long night of reading ahead. It started off as a Cooking Light recipe from sometime in the nineties, but over the years it’s migrated enough from its origins that I think I can call it my own. It’s 100% whole grain without being heavy or gummy. Just sweet enough to avoid that slightly-dreading-the-next-bite sensation I sometimes get with a bowl of plain oatmeal. 30 minutes from the time you start mixing to the time it comes out of the oven. And while in its original incarnation it was baked in an 8×8 pan, I have to say that my instinct to turn it into muffins was a good one–the crust is definitely the best part, and this has none of the gunky texture that you sometimes get on the bottom of things baked in Pyrex dishes. It’s also a nice way to enjoy oatmeal when it’s warm outside, since you can eat the muffins at room temperature and don’t get that sweaty-neck thing that sometimes comes with a big bowl of wintertime oatmeal.
Baked Oatmeal Muffins
- 2 cups quick-cooking oats
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup buttermilk or kefir (can just use 1 1/2 cups milk if you don’t have any)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 cup shelled, salted, and chopped pistachios or other nuts
- 1-2 tbsp dark maple syrup
Preheat oven to 375. Lightly grease a muffin tin.
Combine oats through salt in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Combine milk through vanilla (I usually just do it all in the 2-cup liquid measuring cup so there are fewer dishes) and add to the dry ingredients. Stir thoroughly.
Divide batter into the muffin cups, filling just to the top (they’ll rise because of the baking powder). Sprinkle each muffin with 1 tablespoon pistachios, and drizzle with a bit of maple syrup.
Bake for 15-18 minutes, until golden brown. Run a knife around the edge of each muffin to loosen, then transfer to a wire rack to cool. Makes about 9.
In some ways, it feels like I was gone a long time.
I’ve been back a bit less than two weeks, and I’m still taken by surprise when I pass someone on the street and can overhear and understand their conversation. When I’m going to need to ask a question–of a bus driver or a bank employee or the guy fixing the air-conditioner at work–I still rehearse in my head how to ask it in French, and mentally shuffle through the vocabulary I might need to negotiate the situation. I still experience a moment of unexpected sweet relief when I walk into an air-conditioned building or room or T car.
But at no point have I felt so distant from my life in Paris than during a series of errands today.
I had deposited some money in my French bank account, and had to write myself a check in order to put the money into my American account. The guy at HSBC in Paris had warned me that the check could only be written and deposited in France, and that he doubted I would be able to deposit it, but–with a shrug–“vous pouvez essayer” (you can try). After spending a good 20 minutes at home trying to figure out the correct way to fill out a French check, I walked over to Bank of America, steeling myself for an argument or a request for some obscure piece of paperwork that I had left at home or that I had only copied in duplicate instead of quadruplicate, or the need to ask permission from a bank manager who was on a vacation or not at work since it was Saturday, or a simple “n’est pas possible” (it can’t be done). Instead, the teller greeted me with a smile, took the check, told me to swipe my ATM card to complete the transaction, and, with a joke about the exchange rate finally working in someone’s favor, she told me that the funds would be in my account by Tuesday. Done. No paperwork, no questions, no request for ID, nothing. I walked out of the bank in shock. I’m not sure whether it’s a difference in attitude, or the lack of a language barrier, or a less bureaucratic system in general, but I was feeling kinda happy–or at least at peace–with being back in the US.
Then I got to Stop & Shop, my local supermarket. I had gone the day after I got back from Paris, but was in and out in five minutes, so hadn’t yet done a full comparative study of the intercultural differences. And it was a sad comparison. The produce racks, instead of overflowing with seasonal produce–supermarket produce in France is not perfectly delicious and I usually avoided it, but it’s really not bad–there was a rack of rock-hard peaches with a caption proclaiming, “A taste of summer during the winter.” Winter? I am a fruit freak in general, but none of the fruits were remotely appealing to me. The tomatoes were pale and cottony-looking. Gross. I didn’t even want to touch the plums to test their ripeness, envisioning the dry mealiness within.
The things that kept striking me were the distances that the foods had traveled (literally and figuratively) from their natural state. I saw at least five products in five different sections calling themselves “creations” (deli creations, coffee creations, cheesy creations…). Names of products like “snacksters” and “dillyz” that gave no clue as to the type of food contained within. Aisles and aisles of soda (and no wine or even beer!). I had been thinking about making caldo gallego, a kale-potato-and-chorizo soup that I ate a lot in Spain, but quickly found that the cured meats “section” of the supermarket consisted of sliced pepperoni alongside the “deli creations”–curiously enough, resting just outside the kosher section. No saucisson sec, jamon bayonne, or rosette in sight. Needless to say, this was all quite depressing–and don’t even get me started on the cheese section. The other thing that struck me was the difference in quantity. In most French supermarkets, the largest basket is about half the size of a laundry basket, with a retractable handle, and you drag it along behind you like you’re walking a dog. As everyone played bumper-cars in the crowded produce section at Stop and Shop with the gigantic carts, filled to overflowing because everyone had a car in which to put their groceries after they bought them, I felt very aware of the cultural differences surrounding the practices of food procurement.
But then I got to the self-checkout (a concept which is unheard of in France), and the guy behind me in line happened to be a stocker for the produce section who had just finished a shift. Each time I picked up something in my cart to put on the produce scale–ginger, cilantro, limes, garlic–he knew the product number and called it out to me to punch in, so I didn’t have to flip through the on-screen menus. It was so unexpected and unnecessary–yes, he wanted me to finish so that he could pay for his soda and leave, but he was smiling and didn’t seem put out at all–and it had been awhile since I had experienced customer service like that. At the second store in a row!
And THEN I got to Trader Joe’s. When I was checking out, I realized that I had forgotten to grind my coffee, and the guy at the register was like “Oh! Don’t worry! If you wait here, I can just go grind it for you!” I didn’t take him up on the offer, but I couldn’t believe my ears.
So while in some ways it’s sad to be back–I have barely eaten bread or cheese since I’ve left Paris because it’s just too depressing–in other ways, it’s nice to know that there are things I genuinely enjoy coming home to. Like the ability to pick up the phone and call family and friends whenever I want, or understanding what’s going on around me, or peanut butter, or a wonderful community here in Boston.
Also helping my transition is the CSA–community-supported agriculture–that I joined with my friend Robin. Every week we pick up about 10 pounds of vegetables that are grown just miles from the pick-up spot–zucchini, eggplant, tomatillos, kale, edamame, carrots, basil, parsley. This delicious, local, seasonal, peak-ripeness produce goes a long way towards easing my withdrawal from the gorgeous peppery little radishes and perfect haricots verts that I so quickly grew to take for granted in Paris.
I know now that I’ll be back in Paris in less than a year, so rather than pining for what I had to leave behind there, I’m just savoring the tastes of chocolat au fleur de sel, salted butter, and lentilles de Puy that I smuggled back, the nip in the air that signals an upcoming New England autumn, the convenience of being in the same time zone as most of my family and friends, the endearing sound of a Boston accent. I’ll be back in Paris soon enough.
As I sit here eating breakfast (still-hot baguette tradition from Boulangerie Julien–they are open again!–spread with soft, heavenly, sea-salted butter), I am contemplating what to do with my last full day in Paris. It mostly involves running around town to get things that are impossible or way too expensive to get in the States, or are just not the same as when you get them here. Butter, for instance. The butter here is sweet and creamy, and it is ribboned with fleur de sel (a flaky sea salt), and it tastes basically like what happens when butter goes to heaven. And it makes everything taste good. While butter is obviously widely available in the U.S., it just doesn’t taste as–for lack of a better word–buttery as it does here.
I began packing last night, and realized that 95% (by weight, at least) of what I have acquired here has been edible or can be used to make or consume or enhance edible things, including…
- Lentilles de Puy–a special variety of French green lentils that have a caviar-like quality to them. Really, you never knew that lentils could taste like this.
- Tablettes of chocolate, including my new find, which is dark chocolate sprinkled with fleur de sel (on an unrelated note, in France “six-pack” abs are referred to as tablettes–abs like a scored bar of chocolate. Yes)
- Fleur de sel (noticing a theme here?)
- Harissa (Moroccan hot sauce, extraordinarily flavorful)
- A cheese knife with a split tip like a snake’s tongue, so you can stab the cheese after you slice off a piece
- A white-wine cooling device requested by my grandpa (it is a double sleeve filled with water between the layers, and you freeze it to create a ring of ice. You can then slip this onto bottles of white or rose wine to keep them chilled)
- Tea from Mariage Freres
- Pearl sugar for choquettes and brioche sucre
- Bags of spices from the Moroccan spice merchant on R. Montorgueil (I am a bit afraid that my entire suitcase will be scented with ras-el-hanout by the time I get back, despite the quadruple layer of plastic bagging)
- A big jar of thyme honey, which I got after my degustacion at the honey shop in the Marais
And the list of things to pick up today continues to grow…
- Vacuum-sealed cheeses and butter from Pascal, my fromager on Rue San Antoine (the vacuum seal prevents air from getting in/out, simultaneously keeping your clothes from smelling like Camembert and your cheese from going bad)
- Mini financier from Eric Kayser
- A loaf of pain campagne from Boulangerie Julien (I want to bring baguettes but I’m afraid that they’ll get stale by the time I get home, since Julien is closed tomorrow and a baguette’s ideal lifespan is 18-24 hours at most)
- Chocolates for my office
- Perhaps some vacuum-sealed olives (so many varieties that you can’t find in the U.S., including the fresh green ones to which I’ve grown addicted)
And then there are the ephemeral things that I just don’t think will travel well, like macaron, choquettes, tartes au chocolat. So sad.
Who cares about making room for clothes when there’s the possibility of enjoying French butter for the next month or two? I’m sure glad that I bought an extra gym bag. And my hiking boots, after 2 Boston winters, a trip up and down Kilimanjaro, and a stint on the Camino, are ripped and full of holes and are now in the poubelle (trash)…more room for cheese!
Couldn’t resist sharing these photos that I snapped on my walk to the Metro today. These are part of the storefront for the mousetrap shop around the corner from me:
I have also encountered an umbrella store, a doorknob store, the aforementioned honey store, and a snail store…but this specialty store is in a class of its own.
Hello after a long break! I got back from Spain yesterday (Sunday) night and wow, do I have some stories to share…
PART ONE: SANTIAGO AND LALIN
I got to Santiago de Compostela on Friday night (July 31) and was instantly charmed by the town. Don’t know what I was expecting, but it was the perfect medieval city. What I didn’t realize is that Galicia, the province where Santiago is and where I ended up spending the next week and a half, is the coldest and rainiest part of Spain. I thought Spain in August would be hot, so I left all my warm clothes in Paris, along with my umbrella and rain gear…oops. Dana, Eliza, and Lorena had rented a cute little apartment in the old city for a few days, and we spent a day or two tapa-hopping (in Galicia, you get a free tapa with every drink–and they are often really good! And I discovered Albarino, a really amazing white wine), relaxing in a water spa (three hours of steam-rooms, saunas, therapeutic showers, concentrated water jets that massage your head and neck and back and legs, and a head massage…all for 15 euros!), meeting up with other friends, and getting to know the city. Eliza and Lorena lived there for a summer, and it was great to get to see “their” Santiago.
Then we took a bus about an hour south to Lalin, a place that skirts the line between small city and big town, where Eliza and Lorena’s adorable grandparents, Carmen and Armando, live. We had told Carmen and Armando not to wait for us for lunch on Sunday since we were getting in at 3 pm, but of course they waited, and of course we had already eaten, and of course we had to eat again. Dana had told me about Carmen’s pulpo-pushing (pulpo is octopus, a Galician specialty) ways, but I had to see it to believe it. Carmen would give everyone enormous portions of pulpo, potatoes, empanada gallego (a savory tart with a tuna filling in a yeasted crust), fried chicken cutlets, salad, bread, all doused in copious amounts of delicious olive oil. Then she would keep one eye on her plate and one eye on everyone else’s. If someone’s plate started to look to empty (like if there was any plate showing at all), she would sneak a hand onto the serving spoon, stare at the spot on your plate, spoon up a huge portion of whatever it was she was refilling you with, and–without making eye contact–deposit it onto your plate, despite all protesting. The pulpo was good, but since it was homemade it still had all the purple membrane on the outside, which had a fatty texture and which was hard for me to choke down. When Carmen wasn’t looking, I quickly cut off the membrane and hid it under a lettuce leaf on my plate, and nobody was the wiser. And in Galicia you are not allowed to drink water with pulpo–apparently it makes the pulpo expand in your stomach until your belly sticks out to aqui–so it was all washed down with lots of Rioja.
PART TWO: CAMINO FISTERRE
After a day or so in Lalin, Dana and I got on a bus to Murxia, where we were going to begin the hike back to Santiago. The bus, apparently, is a no-farting zone, as evidenced by the sign by the driver’s seat:
We got to Murxia, a lovely little fishing village on the Atlantic coast, where we found a room in a little pension and took a long walk along the shore:
The next day we began the 31-kilometer trek from Murxia to Fisterre, which is the home of Finisterra, which is the westernmost point in Europe.
We finally got to Fisterra around 3 in the afternoon, after a beautiful day on the trail.
The next morning, we walked to the faro (lighthouse) at the westernmost point of Fisterra, where pre-Columbian Europe thought that the world ended. I couldn’t get that song “It’s the end of the world as we know it” out of my head.
At this point, I was starting to feel a little uneasy about the camino path we had chosen. Santiago de Compostela is the holy city that is about 100 km from the western coast of Spain, and the main Camino Frances is a 1,000+ kilometer route leading from the Spanish border with France westward to end in Santiago. There is then the Camino Fisterre, which is a continuation of the camino to the coast. We had started in Murxia and were hoping to work our way back to Santiago, but once we got to Fisterre it became clear that the path was meant to be traversed in a westward direction. So we made the difficult decision to split up, since I wanted to spend longer on the camino than Dana did, and it was important to me to meet other peregrinos, which we would not get to do if we were walking east, and from what everyone told us, we had already seen the prettiest part of the route. Which brings me to…
PART THREE: CAMINO FRANCES
At this point, I knew that I wanted to walk the last 100 kilometers of the camino into Santiago, which would take about 4-5 days, which was about how much time I had before I wanted to be back in Paris. So, based on information gleaned from a promotional map of Galicia that we had been given in Murxia, I got back to Santiago and hopped on a bus to Lugo and then switched to one going to Sarria, which was 112 kilometers east of Santiago and a point on the trail. But that was all I knew. I had no real map, no guidebook, my cell phone was dead, I had no place to sleep that night, knew nothing about where I was going, and my Spanish, while certainly beginning to regenerate after two years of consciously trying to forget it all in favor of learning French, was not, shall we say, at a native-speaker level. And by the time I would arrive in Sarria, it would be 7pm, and I was fairly certain that all the hostels and albergues and pensiones and hotels would be full–such is the nature, I had heard, of the Camino Frances in August. But for some reason I was really calm about all of it.
Leap, and the net will appear. I got off the bus, and asked a group of peregrino-looking people (they were all wearing technical hiking clothes and carrying backpacks) if they knew how to get to the center of Sarria. “Are you alone?” the guy among them asked me. “Yes,” I replied. “Then come with us!” he said. “We don’t have a place to stay tonight–do you?” And thus began the adventure of a lifetime.
They were a group of 6 from Barcelona–fun, full of life, and relaxed, and with literally 50 words of English between them. Talk about a total immersion–my Spanish had no choice but to come back, because it was either make mistakes or not communicate at all. We didn’t find a hostel for that night, but we were directed to the polideportivo–the municipal gym. Sleeping on the floor. And I had no sleeping mat, sleeping bag, or really anything resembling camping gear. But you know what? There happened to be a camping store around the corner, and I could get everything I needed for less than 10 euros total. And we had a great night, and set out in the morning.
At some point we all started to get nervous because the camino was really crowded, and unbeknownst to us, everyone makes reservations at albergues in the town where they plan to spend the night. Of course we didn’t have any, but 5km before Portomarin (the next town) we found a beautiful old farmhouse with a restaurant. Since it had transitioned from Galician mist to full on rain, we decided to stay there for the night.
The next day the camino cut through some lovely countryside, complete with baby lambs.
We were again starting to get nervous because we didn’t have a place to stay, and there was no polideportivo in Palacio Rios, the next town. But someone tipped us off that there was a family that had a caravan out back where peregrinos could stay, so Natalia and I (who walked faster than the other part of the group) scouted it out. A Galician woman with no teeth to speak of answered the door, and after some haggling we agreed on a price (at this point we had also been joined by a Valencian woman, Gema, so we were eight). As soon as we agreed to stay there, Aurelia (the woman) put me and Natalia to work, washing lettuce that she had picked from the garden minutes earlier, peeling just-dug potatoes for papas fritas, and arranging dry-cured salami and chorizo on a plate. Turns out that all the pork products in the house come from pigs that they raise in the backyard and kill themselves.
After a delicious lunch, their 11-year-old grandson Yoel gave me and Gustavo a tour of the family farm. He was a beautiful child, and had a fantastic personality. We hung out all afternoon.
The meal ended with chamomile tea, brewed from wild chamomile growing wild on their property, and chupitos, or shots of orujo gallego (the local firewater).
The next day, I decided to hike on my own and meet up with everyone in Arzua, a town 35 kilometers away, in which we had hostel reservations.
This day of hiking was grueling. 35 kilometers, with hills that passed the line from rolling to plain old steep.
By the time I got to Arzua, I was totally exhausted, and my feet were so blistered that I could barely walk. I saw Gema sitting at a cafe (she had such terrible foot-swelling that she took a bus from Palacio Rios to Arzua after seeing a doctor there), and she told me that the Barcelonans stopped in a town 15 kilometers further east. At this point, I had already made my flight for the next night, and so that meant I wouldn’t see them again this trip. But we have a pretty tight bond. I’m fairly certain that our paths will cross again.
After showering, I decided that my camino was over. I had nearly 40 kilometers left to go, and I would have to do it all before 2pm the next day, and with the state of my feet, and the fact that this trip had never been about getting to Santiago and getting a meaningless certificate, I decided that I was okay with not finishing.
So the next morning I hung out in Arzua, walked a bit of the camino towards Santiago with some French people to attempt to recoup my French, and watched some reveling musicians who had been partying since the previous night. Note the time: 10 minutes to 10. In the morning.
The day ended with a return to Santiago and a flight back to Paris. And now here I am, showered and well-rested (first night sans earplugs since I left Paris) with clean clothes and blisters band-aided, not as tan as I thought I would be (there were 2 sunny days my whole time in Galicia), calves a bit stronger, and feeling very calm and very centered. This was a really important trip for me. Especially once I went off on my own, I feel like I had a really singular experience that I will never forget, and one that gave me a lot of confidence going into what promises to be a quite difficult year. I don’t know what possessed me to get on that bus and go to Sarria, but a combination of luck and effort and perhaps divine intervention (running into the Barcelonans in the bus station) made for a pretty incredible trip. I would recommend the camino to anyone, though perhaps not in August (the whole nervousness about not finding lodging put a damper on the calming nature of the experience). Especially if you are traveling alone. The camino comes with a built in group of strangers who want to become friends, and there is this wonderful vibe of openness and mutual helping that I have never encountered anywhere else. There were people of all ages, nationalities (although, to be fair, 90% were Spanish, and I would go days without speaking more than 5 minutes of English), ability levels, and motivations for going. I found it almost emphatically non-religious, despite the camino’s religious origins and significance, and I met people who had walked anywhere from 50 to 1,600 kilometers, some of whom walked 30 kilometers and day and some of whom walked 15. And nobody hesitated to share hostel phone numbers or lend a shoelace or band-aid or water bottle or just quiet, mutual cameraderie on the way up a particularly difficult hill.
Now it’s back to Paris for a few days, with my alma (soul) feeling clear, even if the Romance-language-salad emerging from my mouth is decidedly not.