Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NOWFE, cont'd

When I finish digesting all the food and wine, I'll get back to you...I'm afraid to step on a scale...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, cont'd.

I frequently surf over to the website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune when I'm feeling the pull of the Crescent City. In addition to the truly mind-boggling level of political ridiculousness, there are a couple of pithy columnists over there, one of whom is Chris Rose (author of the moving post-Katrina essay collection One Dead in Attic). Today he's got another one of his pleasant dashes of local color in the form of an interview with the king of the Krewe of Corks and maître d'about town Patrick Van Hoorebeek. This is a French-Quarter-based marching krewe of oenophiles and one of their regular activities is to "parade" during next Thursday's Royal Street Stroll, part of NOWFE. Check it out here. See you on the rebound.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

À la recherche du temps perdu

I've been planning a trip to France for a client...name of Marcel Proust. Something about a madeleine... Just kidding. But as I was organizing this client's chateau-based accommodations for a side trip away from Paris down to the Loire Valley, I discovered some sad news that made me relive some of the favorite moments from our last trip to France.

That winter, we made an almost-complete route along the Loire, beginning at St-Benoît and Sancerre at the eastern end, going as far as the suburbs of Nantes, on the western end. We began and ended the trip in Paris, but the focus was assuredly vins et chateaux. We did justice to both.

The first lodging we chose to stay was a farmhouse in St. Benoît. Its owner was most hospitable but her English was limited. That just meant I had a great opportunity to dust off my French. Bill undertook his morning runs around her fields, and one evening we shared the family table and enjoyed a delicious dinner of fresh trout from the local river. While we were in that area we visited one of the smaller chateaux, complete with moat if I remember correctly, and discovered some excellent Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines made from the sauvignon blanc grape that dominates vineyards at that end of the river.

My memory is foggy on the exact delineation of the days that followed...apologies to Marcel. But let's just say for the sake of moving the story along that we then traveled to the other end of the Loire. Along the way, as we were driving through a village between there and here, we happened upon an interesting-looking small family winery. We pulled in; before I could achieve the mental calculation that the sign said "closed for winter", the owner appeared right there in the driveway inviting us in. We stayed there for at least an hour, learning about his family history (again, a chance to dust off the French), and he opened a bottle of literally every wine he had bottled there, including many that were still aging, not labeled or released just yet. To top it off, we had the pleasure of using a fresh glass for every wine (photo of us on my website footer). We bought several bottles...you're shocked, I know.

Other end of the river? Crazy logistics? Not in the least. I had discovered a few weeks before our departure that my favorite French musical artist, Sanseverino, was performing near Nantes. Since it was only an extra 110km out of our way, we rearranged our itinerary to accommodate his concert. It was a blast! Just the kind of thing that makes a trip more memorable. We spent that night in the middle of a muscat vineyard.

After that we traveled to Poitou, a bit south of the major chateau zone, because I had ancestors who lived in the region. Our room there was in the turret of an incredibly old and fortified chateau (it's the one on my website's home page), whose proprietress was a chef. Naturally, we consumed a fabulous dinner with fine--and affordable--local wine.

We went to visit some distant LeBlanc cousins who lived near Poitiers, and they took us to see one of the remaining Acadian homes there. My own ancestors, who had gone to Nova Scotia in the early 1600's from a nearby Poitou village (Martaizé), were later deported by the English from Nova Scotia in the Grand Dérangement of 1755, and sent on a boat to Virginia, which refused the Acadians. At that point the English turned the ship around and sent more than 1100 Acadians to England as prisoners of war, and my ancestors, both father and son, were held in Liverpool for almost eight years. France secured their release with a treaty in 1763, and the surviving 800 or so were repatriated to France. Some of them returned to Poitou and it was one of their homes that we were able to check out. My own people, instead, took advantage of the king's offer of free land to farm on the lovely--but very rocky--Belle-Île-en-Mer. Needless to say, planting crops in the rocks did not yield any, uh, bountiful harvests, so after that struggle and a few more years in France, they finally decided to go back to the New World on one of the seven famous Acadian Voyages that took place in 1785 or so. That's how they finally ended up in Louisiana.

So back to France...after Poitou, we headed back to the heart of the chateau country, just across the river from Villandry and its rightfully famous gardens (not quite as impressive in the dead of winter, alas). This time we were at a beautiful French country home, complete with horses, chickens, cats and a dog. The family who welcomed us into its home (B & B) could not have been warmer or more charming, just entirely down to earth. When we took two evening meals with them en famille, it was in the centuries old huge kitchen with a massive fireplace that was clearly used for cooking in its former life. When I say "with them" that would include Anne and Eric, their four kids, one daughter's boyfriend, another guest couple with their baby, and us--all arranged at an endlessly long wooden table in front of that amazing fireplace. Many courses, real home-cooking, great local wine, intelligent conversation (and more French practice)!

There were so many wonderful aspects to the trip, but Bill and I both have especially fond memories of staying with this family and sharing two evening meals with them. Eric was an oenophile and turned us on to a gifted winemaker by the name of Jacky Blot. His labels are Domaine de la Taille aux Loups (whites, Montlouis-sur-Loire and Vouvray) and Domaine de la Butte (reds, Bourgueil). Everything we tasted was excellent, and of course we went home loaded up with wine. One of my clients also went to visit M. Blot and very kindly transported to me another bottle of his wonderful late-harvest Montlouis (chenin blanc) Cuvée des Loups 2003, which I am hoarding for a special occasion. It should keep nicely.

I do believe that it snowed every single day we were in the Valley and Poitou, which is highly unusual in their moderate climate. Here's a picture of the magnificent, river-straddling Chateau de Chenonceau, which I rechristened as ChenonSnow.

And that brings me back to the sad news I have just discovered. I wrote to Anne and Eric this week to inquire about a guest room for my client. Eric wrote me back and said that Anne had died two years ago of cancer, at only 50 years old. She was such a lively, warm person who clearly gave as much pleasure to her guests as they got from her. I am sure she had brought light to the many lives she touched, both in her own family and community as well as through her B & B business. Eric said he has recently started taking guests again (but not having dinners for them), and believes that is what Anne would have wanted.

I know he is right.

Monday, May 4, 2009

New Orleans Two-Fer

We're between May trips to the Crescent City. Last weekend we headed down to relax with friends and attend Jazz Fest. We were chatting about our Fest experiences over the years, 'cause I've been a regular since about 1982. (I think I went once as a teenager with my mother before that.) I remember in college it always fell at precisely the same moment as final exams and due dates for major papers. Yet somehow I always managed to get there for a day, at least. Granted, when I lived in NOLA it was a tad easier to get there, though wrangling that day off work was a challenge sometimes. I've missed it twice: in 1987, when I was living in Europe, and 2008. That year we returned from Istanbul on the first weekend of Fest and my husband could not disappear from work again so soon for us to catch the second weekend...

So this year we went on the second Friday with our friend Anne and saw The Chilluns, Beausoleil , The Revealers, The Iguanas, Doc Watson, Dirty Dozen & Rebirth Brass Bands, Pinettes (all-girl!) Brass Band, John Scofield and the Piety Street Band, Bonnie Raitt, 101 Runners, and interviews with members of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians and also with Chris Owens (one of my old hat customers).

The other main activity of Jazz fest is EATING. This year we ate crabcakes, crawfish sacks, crawfish etouffée, banana bread pudding, and a most refreshing mango freeze when we were burning up in the sun. Also had a caffeine-laden 24oz frozen café au lait later in the day when again, we were feeling a bit piqued from the heat and humidity. The upside is that it didn't rain.

The third thing on a Jazz fest agenda is crafts. There are multiple crafts areas featuring all kinds of artists and artisans. I have two favorites: Robbiewear leather pouches and bags and Diane Harty hats. Thomas Mann was there the first weekend and we were there for the second, so we made what is now a habitual pilgrimage to his gallery on Magazine St.

One cannot fail to run into people one knows, or people one hasn't seen in ages, at Jazz Fest. This year we (deliberately) met up with a few and then ran into a bunch more as we were leaving.

I said we were between trips to New Orleans, didn't I? The next one is another annual event for us and a lot of other folks, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. This year's festivities look as enticing as the ones I mentioned last year, so we are certainly looking forward to the extended "weekend" of indulgence. This year's events will be May 19th to 23rd. Famous chefs, endless delicious food, noted winemakers, hundreds and hundreds of wines, seminars, dinners, on and on...NOWFE has matured into one of the premier wine and food events in the country, if not the world; and like I wrote last year: New Orleans...Wine...Food...Enough said!

Though we flew last weekend, thanks to some great fares on Southwest, we'll be driving to NOWFE. Why? Because we need to bring home a chest full of fresh Gulf seafood from the seafood market in Westwego! Last year we brought home flounder, lump crabmeat, huge shrimp (at $3.25/lb), and crawfish tail meat. We ate like the king and queen for the next ten days, at pauper prices. Mmmmmm, I will have to think about what to cook! Crabmeat stuffed rolled flounder...crab and yellow tomato salad...crawfish pie...shrimp creole...gumbo...good old boiled shrimp...or maybe some of that shrimp will go into a recipe from my new Indian cookbook...

Long time, no blog...DC!

This spring we dashed off to DC to visit some friends (who are also clients) during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. As always, there's a longer list of places we'd like to visit than time allows, but this year we managed to hit a few choice spots.

National Museum of Women in the Arts--great photography exhibits, the best of which was by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. She was one of the main fashion photographers used by Harper's Bazaar from the 1930's through 1950's. She took fashion photography out into the world, shooting at exotic locales and using the shapes, light and textures of the settings as inseparable parts of the fashion image, and these backdrops took on a new importance n because of their visual or symbolic relationship with the fashion being presented. Also saw an exhibit of Mary McFadden designs, alongside some of her own textile and jewelry collection. Some of the pieces are thousands of years old and when the items are viewed with her clothes, you can clearly see the dialogue of inspiration.

Renwick Gallery--This one's near the White House and is part of the Smithsonian. It houses American art and often has a particular focus on American craft, decorative arts and design. This spring we saw a beautiful exhibit about Greene & Greene, the architects who designed the arts and crafts jewel known as the Gamble House, in Pasadena CA. The details are just amazing, and they often worked with furniture craftspeople to create pieces for the interiors of their structures. The resulting harmonious effect is something to behold. We also caught a recital of the Washington national Opera's Young Artists in Residence. They performed excerpts from American operas in various solos and ensembles. All were excellent, and the head of the WNO and the program, Placido Domingo, was there. We got to hear him speak, but not sing!

Library of Congress--one of the grandest and most beautiful buildings in DC, and the things it contains are precious to our culture and intellectual life. Take the docent-guided tour.

Smithsonian American Art Gallery & National Portrait Gallery--great WPA exhibit at the former and thought-provoking portraiture at the other. I'm sure the WPA exhibit was curated at least a year ago, but seeing it during these troubled economic times makes me wonder if the government "stimulating" some public art might be a good idea again...

Freer Gallery--Asian art, along with Whistler's art inspired by Asia. The Peacock Room is jaw-droppingly elaborate, worth a stop in itself.

Our government in action--We waited in a very loooooong line at the Supreme Court, in a cold and blistering March wind, only to find that there were no more places available for the full argument and we could only go sit in the three-minute seats. I've seen a full argument and it's fascinating, but Bill and Marla had not seen it at all; for them, three minutes was better than nothing!

We also went to a Congressional hearing, a House hearing on Afghanistan and Pakistan (Understanding and Engaging Regional Actors). You would think that with Pakistan in its current highly unstable state, nukes, Taliban in the Swat Valley...and with Afghanistan boiling up again...that the hearing would have been informative and interesting. Alas, it was rather dull! Oh, well!

Lastly, the the new Capitol Visitor Center is very nice but the standard tour is pretty short and not that sweet. I'd recommend arranging your tour through your congressperson's office several months prior to your trip. They are more personalized and more interesting.

Shakespeare Library--nifty exhibit of books and writings on sleep and dreams. Beliefs in Elizabethan times were quite interesting, given what we know now about the subject. Recreated Globe Theatre inside is way cool. Would love to see a performance there...

Cherry Blossom time--we strolled all around the Tidal basin and finally took in the beauty of the annual bloom of these non-fruit-bearing ornamental cherry trees. There is usually various festival entertainment in front of the Jefferson Memorial, but technical difficulties reduced our entertainment to people-watching. The blossoms are as beautiful in person--more so--than in photos. I've got one on my desktop screen now, to keep the lovely memory fresh.