Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Make Fondue

What do you picture when you think of cheese fondue? My sister used to imagine it was like a bowl of warmed-up Velveeta: slightly orangey in color, a bit bland, and with the same consistency throughout. Then I made a fondue on Christmas Day the way I learned to make it in Paris, using Swiss cheeses, white wine, and a hint of seasoning, which resulted in a thick/liquidy dish with a taste unlike anything her American tongue had experienced before. After exclaiming, "so that's what fondue is supposed to be like!" she helped me polish off the dish in rather short order.

It's not a complicated recipe, and you don't need a refined technique or a special fondue-heating contraption to succeed in making the most delicious fondue you've ever tasted. Just follow these steps:

1. Start with the right ingredients. You need equal parts Appenzeller and Gruyère cheese, white wine (preferably from Switzerland or the Savoie region of France), a teaspoon of chopped garlic, and freshly ground nutmeg to taste. Cut the cheese into small cubes.

2. Heat the garlic and a splash of wine in a deep pot. Ideally you would use a cast iron pot, such as one from Le Creuset, but if you're like me and only have stainless steel pots from Ikea, don't worry. It works fine.

3. Once the wine is simmering, but not boiling, add half of the cheese with a portion of wine. I used 400 grams of cheese in total, so with 200 grams of cheese I added a half a cup of wine. Stir the wine and cheese mixture until the cheese is melted, then add the second portion of cheese plus more wine and stir. Patience is key.

4. Grate fresh nutmeg into the mix until you reach the desired amount for your taste. My feeling is that there's no such thing as too much nutmeg in cheese fondue.

5. Keep stirring and don't remove from the heat the entire time you're eating the fondue. The consistency will be thick, but with some of the wine remaining separate from the cheese providing a sort of liquid bath. You want the mixture to be hot but not burning at the bottom of the pan. Play with the heat and you'll find the right temperature for your pot and stove.

6. Enjoy with cubes of good French bread, roasted potatoes, or steak. We used all three. Oh, and don't forget to drink the rest of the wine while eating your fondue!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Joyeux Noël

Paris' grands magasins go all out on their Christmas decorations, including mechanical window displays, elaborate exterior lighting, and this giant Christmas tree inside the rotunda of Galleries Lafayette. The picture doesn't really do this incredible sight justice, but I think it's pretty just the same. A very Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating today.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Great European Travel Disaster of 2009

It is not a good time for European travel. The Eurostar has stopped service indefinitely, other rail companies are experiencing major delays, roads are unplowed, accidents abound, and flights now come with many hours spent waiting at the airport. It seems the sudden cold snap followed by decent snowfall has caught a lot of the continent by surprise, upending the holiday plans of thousands of travelers. Add to that the various strikes or threats of strikes that are affecting transportation networks and you've got one big end-of-the-year mess that seems to have left no previously perfectly-timed itinerary untouched.

My sister and I got our own taste of The Great European Travel Disaster of 2009 this weekend. It started with a train reservation on Belgian rail line, Thalys, that was set to leave Brussels' Gare du Midi at 8:50am Saturday morning. Delay after delay found us leaving approximately 20 mintues behind schedule. Not bad, but not ideal either. Unfortunately, it was only a harbinger of things to come. As we kept an eye on the developing Eurostar story and unchanging weather forecasts, we hoped our return to Brussels would not be affected. But upon arrival at Amstedam Centraal Station we quickly heard rumors of no trains coming in and no trains going out. A frantic hour later we somehow managed to learn that our train would be leaving shortly from platform 11a. Running through the station and up to the platform, dragging bags and fellow passengers we passed information to mid-stride, we found our seats and thanked our lucky stars.

The biggest problem we discovered when trying to get back to Brussels was a lack of accurate information. At the Amsterdam station all of the information signs read "no information currently available." Everyone we talked to said "No Thalys." No Thalys right now, or ever? Turns out, it was only delayed by about 40 minutes, a hiccup that should not have caused the uncertainty and panic we witnessed and felt. But without information, the imagination runs wild, usually to the worst-case scenario. Our train had problems on the tracks, and some passengers had to stand for lack of seats, but we finally made it to Brussels, albeit two hours behind schedule. Our next train ride is set for tomorrow, on the Thalys from Brussels to Paris. We're crossing our fingers.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Let it Snow

Airport cancellations, slippery roads, unshoveled sidewalks. Brussels obviously doesn't know how to deal with a little snowstorm. Thankfully, my sister arrived just before the skies opened up, so we spent the day nice and warm in my apartment, catching up over cups of tea and away from the madness. Later in the afternoon we ventured out on foot to enjoy the beauty of a European city under a blanket of snow.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Europe for Newcomers

Less than two days from now my sister will arrive in Brussels. She has never been to Europe, and her only overseas experiences include a family vacation to the Dominican Republic in 1998 and a trip to Mexico a few years after that. I’m thrilled to be the one to introduce her to this continent that has been such a part of my life for the past eight years, but I’m also a little nervous. Will she like it here? What will she think of the people, the food, and the teeny little cars? Will she be as inspired by the history and architectural beauty of Europe as I am and will she thrive as a cultural outsider as I do? Or will she feel shy about communicating with the locals and nervous about being surrounded by the unfamiliar? How, exactly, do you show Europe to a newcomer?

Our siblings-only European tour will start with two nights in Brussels followed by a weekend in Amsterdam. Then it’s back to Brussels for two days before leaving for Paris, where we’ll spend a few days visiting the main sights as well as my favorite hidden haunts. After returning to Brussels in time for Christmas we’ll have five more days to do with what we like. I’m thinking a quick trip to Antwerp or Bruges could be nice. Or maybe a relaxing afternoon spent soaking in the thermal baths of Spa? In addition to all this train-hopping and sightseeing I plan to work in plenty of local cuisine (hello, French cheese!), visiting of markets, and other aspects of daily life in Europe. My hope is that she’ll return to the U.S. with a good idea of what it’s like to live somewhere else. And a newfound love of French cheese.

For all my anxiety about our pending adventure, she seems to be taking things in stride. Sure, there was the conversation where I had to reassure her that the French will not refuse to speak to her in English even if they know how (only the truly dastardly do that), but she was also excitedly adamant about visiting Amsterdam and is looking forward to seeing the Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels as well as some of the art and design sights in Amsterdam in Paris. As a student of graphic design, and an outstanding interior designer, I know she’ll find plenty to love in Europe. I’m probably worrying for nothing, and I definitely don’t want to over-analyze the situation, but I also can’t help but want her to have a good time. During a recent phone conversation I gave her the following advice: sit back and enjoy the ride. Maybe I should try to do the same.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Worst Corkscrew Ever

In all my years of wine bottle opening I had never seen this happen. The screw was in the cork, the cork was starting to dislodge when, snap! The corkscrew broke in two, leaving a good chunk of screw firmly wedged in the cork. Now what? I really, really wanted to drink that wine, which I had purchased only hours earlier at my neighborhood fromagerie in the hopes of pairing it with the evening's dinner. But without a back-up corkscrew, and with all the stores in Brussels already closed for the night, there was nothing I could do but grab a beer out of the fridge and wait for tomorrow.

Tomorrow arrived, I purchased a new corkscrew, and set about salvaging the bottle. With some help from a marvelously capable butter knife, and a lot of patience - I worked on this thing for a good 15 minutes, photography time not included - the screw finally came loose. Wielding the new, and hopefully less breakable, corkscrew I removed what was left of the cork and finally got to sit back and enjoy a glass of chilled white wine. Because I had used the Worst Corkscrew Ever It took me two days to do what normally would take mere seconds. Lesson learned: one corkscrew in the house is never enough. Always have a back-up.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The French, Going on Strike, and Me

Museum-goers in Paris recently had to go without many of the city's most popular art-filled destinations. A museum workers strike that started last week (and has since gotten a little less widespread) temporarily shut such popular destinations at the Musée d’Orsay, Musée Rodin, and even the Musée du Louvre. I wasn’t surprised to hear the news – we all know the French are famous for their use of grèves – but I was surprised when I realized that for all the time I’ve spent in France, I haven’t had much first-hand experience with major French strikes. Not that I’m complaining.

In addition to those that are capable of closing parts of Versailles, the most dramatic strikes in France have to be the ones that involve public transportation. Métro strikes all but bring the city to its knees, with sights like this instilling the fear of God into travelers like me. Air France strikes are also known for their elevated pain-in-the-neck factor, and while I have had experience with being barred from an Air France flight, it was not as the result of a strike. Then there was the garbage collectors strike in Cannes that I missed by mere hours because of a weekend trip to Strasbourg, and which involved the workers throwing garbage all over the city streets (quelle classe), and while I did encounter a museum strike last year in Paris, it was on a much smaller scale as the current. Just the Musée d’Orsay and one utterly annoyed American student.

I have a difficult time understanding the strike mentality in France. I recognize the importance of strikes in French society and the right of workers to assert their wants and needs, but in the end, I simply don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I have no information on whether or not all this societal disruption actually brings tangible results, or because I’ve never myself gone on strike and therefore am unable to empathize with the strikers. Or maybe, it's because I'm not meant to understand it. It's quite possible that the frequency and regularity with which the the French are en grève is simply meant to remain one of those eternal French mysteries, like how they don't get fat, and why on Earth they refuse to clean up after their dogs.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Market: Cologne

The thought that immediately came to mind when I saw one of the Christmas markets in Cologne was, "It's a good thing I went to Lille first." If I had done it the other way around, Lille would have been a major disappointment. In addition to having only a single Christmas market versus the seven that are in Cologne, Lille's festivities seemed half-hearted after witnessing the great lengths Germany goes to when celebrating the holiday season. Everyone from my colleagues to the commenters on this blog told me that the German markets make everything else look like child's play, but I was still surprised at just how right they turned out to be.

If you go Christmas market shopping in Cologne, the first thing you should do is pick up a free Christmas market guide. This brochure will give you a map of the city with directions and descriptions for each of the seven markets. I went to four of them, including the "Home of the Gnomes" and the "Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral," while I unfortunately missed out on the city's only floating market, held on a boat on the Rhine. Next, find the nourishment you'll need to get you through a day of intense shopping by eating and drinking at one of the many food plazas within the markets. I recommend the friend potato pancakes, grilled bratwurst, and mulled wine that comes in a collectible Christmas martket mug. Enjoy amongst fellow revelers under the roof of an outdoor dining pavillion. Now you're ready to hit the stalls. I liked the "Angel's Market" the best, and I suggest multiple visits to the indoor ornament shop you'll find there, which is filled to the brim with delightful little handcrafted wooden decorations.

The Cologne Christmas markets are a major tourist destination - we heard a lot of British accents and a considerable amount of French - but you can't help but notice how many Germans are getting in on the fun as well. Die Weihnachtsmärkte are truly a part of the local culture, and the friendly Germans are easy to talk to and happy to offer information about the markets if you need it. Where Lille's market gives me a "been there, done that" kind of feeling, Cologne is a place I would gladly return to over and over again for all my holiday decoration and getting-into-the-spirit needs. Everyone was right: the Germans know how to do Christmas.