Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Back to the Grind

Although it doesn't really feel like it. Michael's schedule this semester is strange to say the least. He has all of his major classes on Monday and Wednesday morning, which he finishes up by 12:30. This leaves Tuesday majorly free, with only our 2:00pm French class, Thursday mostly free (he has a graduate seminar in the afternoon) and Fridays completely free. Needless to say, this crazy schedule has not led to a very solid sleep pattern for us, which is unfortunate. And with the weather not so nice, there isn't much to do outside of the apartment...which leaves us a little stir crazy. I am hopeful that with either snow or spring (either extreme, rather than this rainy, muddy muck), this time will be put to use with more exploration and walking.

In other news, I finally sucked it up and went to the doctor last week when my on-again, off-again cold was suddenly very much on-again. It was this trip to the doctor that made me realize why it seems that the French go to the doctor at the slightest sign of a sniffle. After checking with one of the GTL administrators on what papers I needed to take along, I walked about two blocks from the apartment to the doctors office where I was buzzed in to sit in an empty waiting room [read -- no receptionist]. I could hear the doctor in with another patient and after maybe five minutes of attempting to read a French gossip magazine (I'm not proud to admit that the reading went pretty well, apparently I am fluent in gossip mag speak), the doctor came out and asked me into her office. She spoke English quite well (I should point out that I found her on a GTL sheet of English speaking professionals in the Metz area) and after checking my lungs, asking the requisite questions (am I allergic to anything, pregnant?), she printed out a prescription for me, took me 22 euros ($30) and sent me across the street to the pharmacy. In the pharmacy I spent another 12 euros ($18) on my three prescriptions. The entire ordeal took roughly 20 minutes (with no appt. made) and $48, which I know doesn't seem very cheap until I point out that said charges are not copays, as we would deal with in the states, but the actual cost of the visit and medications had I been without health insurance. Since we have health insurance as long stay visa holders, we will get 70% of that money back when we submit it to the insurance company. Before making the move here, Michael went to the doctor for a simple check-up in Wellsboro without health insurance which ended up costing a whopping $92 for roughly the same amount of time with the doctor, and thankfully on that trip, there were no prescriptions. I in no way intend to bring politics into this blog, but I thought the differences were surprising enough to note, not to mention the fact that all residents here are granted health insurance (which cost us something like 200 euros for the both of us, per YEAR) regardless of...well, anything. If I were back in the US, not married to Michael, and working as a pastry chef/baker (small business = no employer provided health plan), I would be turned down by every private health insurance company for pre-existing conditions (believe me, I've tried) and would be forced to pay COBRA roughly $450 per MONTH for health insurance. I'm not saying the US should be switching over to socialized medicine completely, but there must be some aspects of foreign medical insurance that we could use to make our system work more efficient and inexpensive. Ok, I promise no more rants on health insurance on to something more interesting...

A few months back, while scoping out the produce aisles at our favorite grocery store, I came across something I had never seen before, raw olives! In my excitement, I bought a handful and brought them home eagerly to Michael. After stupidly trying one before researching, I realized just why they are always found soaked in oil or vinegar, they are disgustingly bitter. So a few weeks later, Michael and I decided to embark on yet another culinary journey and brine our own olives! The photo to the left is how they looked for the first 2 months while they were brining away. The brine was a simple salt and water solution that we changed every week. While changing the brining liquid every week, I would force Michael to try one of the olives to gauge their bitterness and when they had finally lost all of their bitterness a few weeks ago, we were able to jar them and flavor them as we wanted.

The finished products are flavored with varying combinations of lemon, garlic, cumin, coriander, hot pepper, thyme, and herbes de provence then topped off with red wine vinegar and olive oil. The few we've tasted have been excellent but we're letting them soak up some more flavor before we begin scarfing them down. Next problem: acquiring fresh olives in PA when we move back :-)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yet another post that will make you hungry...

It's been a long time since my last post and, quite frankly, not much worth of a post has happened. Since our lovely trip to Canet en Roussion, most of our time has been spent either [me] laying in bed watching old house hunters episodes or [Michael] playing games and reading the New York Times online. Unfortunately, I have been battling a cold since returning from the south so sadly, not even our food has been very exciting.
Ok, I guess that's not entirely true.

We did make some awesome cheese ravioli with homemade sauce (I apologize for the flash in this picture).

And for one Sunday brunch we made eggs Benedict, with French crustless toast in place of English muffins.

And in an effort to use up a 2 pack tart dough that we accidentally bought, we made this amazing oven dried tomato and goat cheese tart.

This sideways picture shows the results of our Iron Chef Metz competition. The secret ingredient was a very large chunk of an unknown type of pumpkin. Our final dish (ignore the leftover tomato tart) was a roasted pumpkin soup with lardons, edam cheese and parsley.


My personal favorite dish from the month though was our first attempt at Fricassée de Poulet à l'Estragon (Tarragon Chicken Fricassée) with the help of Julia Child. It tasted just like I remembered from my CIA days and took me back to waiting in line for lunch or dinner outside the Cuisines of Europe and the Mediterranean kitchen.

And finally ,we would like to introduce you to our fleeting friend, Harold (Harry) the snowman/ogre. He was created last Wednesday during a warm and wet snowfall and unfortunately, perished a few days later in the rain. He will be remembered for his big ears, warm heart (which eventually helped aid in his demise, a warm heart isn't necessarily a good thing for a snowogre), and a face that only a mother could love.

Friday, January 8, 2010

One More Thing...

In my earlier post I forgot to dole out the link for the complete photo album from this trip; you can view the photos by clicking HERE.

3 Countries in 3 Days

That is the easiest way to explain our wonderful, whirl-wind trip with the Reindls last week. 

Sorry for the following monster post; thankfully, much of it is pictures.

The Sunday after our little Christmas, Michael and I walked into downtown Metz where were were to meet his parents that afternoon. It was a chilly and rainy day and after wandering through the quickly-disappearing Christmas markets and finding the oldest church in France (more on that later), we meandered our way to the train station to warm ourselves. It was getting a little late and we still hadn't heard from Tom and Ginny, so we figured our best bet would be to hang out where they were to meet us. We went inside, splurged on some coffee and croissants, and waited for our toes to regain feeling. Just as we were heading out the door, like magic, there they were! After many hugs, we made our way outside for a little walking tour of Metz only to find that during that short time in the train station the nasty rain had turned to snow, leaving about an inch of white fluffy stuff for our viewing pleasure.

Our first POI (point of interest -- that's GPS speak) on our walking tour of Metz was St-Pierre-aux-Nonnains, the oldest church in France. It was built somewhere between 380 and 395AD.

We then took a short tour of the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Metz and got a lovely, if wet, family portrait outside. Before giving up and retreating to the car, we walked around to a few of the Christmas Markets to get one last glimpse until next year

After settling into our nice warm apartment, we started in on what would be a very full night of eating. We started off with some cheeses and foie gras that we had been accumulating over the previous weeks. Then we enjoyed some steamed artichokes. And finally, we dove into the cassoulet that we had spent the previous 3 days putting together. For those of you unfamliar with cassoulet (I was until reading Julie and Julia), I will include the Wikipedia definition:
Cassoulet  is a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole originating in the south of France, containing meat (typically pork sausages, pork, goose, duck and sometimes mutton), pork skin (couennes) and white haricot beans.
It is not difficult to make, just time consuming. It turned out well for our first attempt but we certainly need some more practice.

After a very filling dinner, we played some Mille Bornes (the French card game that Michael got me for Christmas) and opened some Christmas presents from home. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with wonderful family.

Monday morning we cleaned up, showered up, packed up, and hit the road with Madaline, our trusty GPS system in the rental car, without which, we would have never made it through France. After about 9 hours of driving, we finally made it to the condo in Canet-en-Roussillon, a small village near Perpignan, France. After attempting and failing to find an open grocery store, we finally gave up and ate at one of the restaurants at the resort. We were pleasantly surprised and while Tom and Michael ate their salmon and vegetables, Ginny and I enjoyed our steak and fries and we all shared a lovely 6€ bottle of local wine.

 The next morning we ventured downtown to find this lovely view of the Mediterranean Sea.

After a quick chat at the tourist's office, we made our way to a little village that is home to this fortress/castle. Fort de Salses was built in the 15th century as border security between what was then Catalonia and the southern border of France.

After the castle, we ventured to the small town of Millas which is home to La Catalane Moulin à Hulie (the Catalan Oil Mill) where we sampled and bought some deliciously spicy olive oil and a baguette for our delicious dinner of seafood alfredo.

     The  next morning, we set off for Barcelona. Along the way, we stopped off in Collioure, France to see what was described to us to be a typical, pretty French town with a beautiful rocky shore line.

After some more driving (poor Tom) we arrived in Barcelona. Parking prooved to be tricky but with Madeline's assistance we eventually found a spot on the water. We found this happy guy while walking along the water towards the main road, La Rambla. We followed la Rambla away from the harbor. It was filled to the brim with live statues, tapas bars, artists, and people. About half way up, we turned onto a side street to visit the Barcelona Cathedral which is quite possibly, the most beautiful cathedral that we have seen so far in Europe.

After walking through the immense and intricate interior, we took an elevator to the top where we got this incredible view of the city.

We continued our walk up La Rambla to the Plaça de Catalunya.

On our way back to the car, we were treated to this amazing sunset on the harbor.

Instead of going straight along the coast back to Canet-en-Roussillon, we decided to take a detour through the tiny country of Andorra. On our map it looked like a fairly straight major highway going north into the capital city then east back towards coastal France. The detour would perhaps add another hour onto our return trip. To the left is one of the few pictures we got from the car.

What our (rather large) map failed to show us was this kind of switchbacks that we encountered through the Pyrenees, which included probably 2/3 of the trip.

That, combined with the sudden, mini-blizzard that we hit resulted in a 5 hour drive rather than a 3 hour drive. The detour was long, and a little nerve-racking. But even at night, the city and scenery were incredibly beautiful. And considering the amount of people we passed pulled over, putting on their snow chains, we were just thankful that the snow didn't get any worse.

Before beginning our journey back to Metz, we made one last stop at the beach so we could wade in and say we had been in the Mediterranean Sea. The water was cold, refreshing, and beautiful. We can't wait to go back in the summer.
We arrived back in Metz later that evening and since all grocery stores had closed early, we had to scramble to make some pesto pasta for dinner. At midnight, we toasted the new year with a lovely bottle of Champagne. We look forward to being back in the states with our loved ones by the next New Year.

Thanks again, Ginny and Tom, for the visit and wonderful trip to the south. Much love and Bonne Année!