Book Review: Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French: A New Life In Paris (Memoir)

Almost French: Love and a New Life in ParisAlmost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written in a breezy journalist’s style and with the brief to write about culture shock in Paris, this book was interesting and insightful enough, providing me with some good background on living in Paris and about Parisians, who in four months I may or may not really meet! It’s an easy read and I didn’t take it particularly seriously.

Having been through an experience of a New Worlder trying to fit into the Old World when I first lived in Europe, it made me feel a bit melancholy, remembering some of that shock and loneliness and that expectation that somehow life should be easier than it was. And now having lived in Australia for ten years, I think that allowed me to enjoy the book more, as her cultural reference point for comparison is Australia.

Some of the early cultural adjustments though, don’t seem to be necessarily about Paris. They are about living alone in a new city, about trying to find a career and get started, about working on one’s own.

I did enjoy various cultural observations and snippets of information; and it felt like there was truth to them: dealing with French bureaucracy, the thousands of little dogs around here, the pride Parisians take in dressing. I liked the insider views of her interviews with a top chef and a top designer and a visit to Paris Fashion Week.

Some of what started to feel more interesting and deeper, observations of a changing city, economic and cultural change, was topical, and now, over a decade since the book’s 2002 publication is a bit out of date.

It felt incomplete though, six years of struggling to understand her new life in Paris and the revelations were quiet ones. There was never a very deep exploration into one aspect of society that was backed up with historical information or much more than observation.

And more importantly for me to connect with the book, there wasn’t a deep enough exploration of her personal journey. The book is purportedly about the romance that brought her to Paris, but her husband is mostly absent. The relationship is touched upon, not explored deeply. It was not that kind of book and yet by all accounts, it seems pretty magical to meet one’s love of one’s life, pursue it whole-heartedly and make it last. I assume that her husband’s support was really what allowed her to survive all of the challenges that are described, but it doesn’t come across that way. The experiences here are gentle, funny and bumbling tales of adjustment.

Similarly, the pain of exclusion and trying to find one’s way isn’t expressed or perhaps deeply felt. I think by making the best of it, the author put a bit of a happy gloss so that what comes out is slightly complaining and resentful, hanging onto slights at parties and experiencing unfriendliness. I wanted more feeling and more vulnerability than these light-hearted anecdotes.

Still, if you find it on the shelf of your Paris rental apartment, as I did, I would recommend it. I read that Turnbull has continued with a successful writing career, and I suspect that her insights and perspectives would be more interesting to me these days, with a bit more experience around her belt, rather than the young writer who reminded me of my own slightly complaining and bumbling self, when I was trying to adjust to Brussels and London, pretending I was much more light-hearted than I was.

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Restaurant Review: Près d’Eugenie (desserts)

This August 2014 trip in the southwest of France, I’ve found that we’ve had many memorable meals, that included inventiveness in the entrees and mains, but that the dessert was often basic, traditional and simple, probably based on something local or seasonal. They were usually lovely, but not outstanding. The desserts here broke this rule. S’s delight had a name we couldn’t decipher at the time. And still can’t. I think it was the: Un Soufflé Époustouflant à la Verveine du Jardin, the astonishing soufflé. Or was it Le Gros Baba Roulé-Boulé-Soufflé aux Senteurs d’Orange. Hmm, I think it was the soufflé.

The maitre’d (at least I think he was the maitre’d), who looked like a French Tim Gunn (from Project Runway), shared the anecdote with us that when Pierre Hermès, famed macaron and dessert creator, comes to Près d’Eugenie, he does not ask whether Michel Guérin is working that day, he asks whether this dessert is available. He also said that Hermès likes the dessert because it is so ugly, and isn’t something he could display in a store window, but is the perfect combination of textures and flavours, acidity and cream.

It was S’s favourite dish. I found it amazing in that it was not particularly sweet, nor showy, but it was, as was described to us, a perfect combination of textures and flavours. Served with a raspberry dessert wine, it was perfection.

Me, I had a chocolate plate “of kings”:

Le Dessert du Roi ‘‘Tout en Chocolat’’
Petit Pot de Crème, Sorbet, Gâteau Soufflé et Mirliton

that had a little chocolate soufflé, with a perfect crisp skin, soft and unctuous and not too sweet, a little chocolate mousse or pudding, some more rich and fudgey chocolate topped with coffee granita (the clean texture of ice a perfect contrast to the richness of the chocolate) and a perfect little apple tart. Each was wonderful, and as a gourmand rather than gourmet, I liked being able to try so many different things. The sommelier chose to serve it with a Don Pedro Ximenez sherry… from 1927. I still can’t get over that. Five years before the year my Dad was born. It was rich, sweet, dark, smooth and grand.

This was a heavenly finish to an amazing meal.

[I planned on adding photos to this review... but am now away from my home computer for a few months so can only grab a few from Facebook. It will look much better with some photos...]

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Restaurant Review: Près d’Eugenie (overview)

10574355_10152333366557671_632480135753592057_nDuring our trip in southwest France in August 2014, S. and I decided that, in addition to numerous regular yummy meals, we would treat ourselves to one particularly f*ing excellent meal. S. is good at research and presented me with a few options, which I reviewed and he allowed me to choose. Our choice was Près d’Eugenie, presided over by the famous chef Michel Guérand and his wife Christine, an heiress to the Biotherm company. A three-star Michelin restaurant, it’s also a hotel and health spa and since the 70s, has turned a small town an hour or two from Bordeaux (and 8 hours drive from Paris) into a destination for wealthy food-lovers and holidaymakers.

But what would a three-star Michelin star restaurant be like? Sydney has some spectacular restaurants these days, and we’ve also treated ourselves to some fine meals overseas (Geranium in Denmark being a stand-out). Near the end of two weeks of travelling around to some wonderful spots in southwest France, I was curious, though hadn’t put much thought into it. I’d also not done too much research in advance. For example, my gathering of general knowledge had someone missed out on knowing that the Michelin stars for restaurants came out of the Michelin travel guide which was an offshoot of the Michelin tire company. Which all makes sense if you think about it which I hadn’t.

10441148_10152333365957671_2890535243467726331_nOur Sat Nav told us we’d arrived at our destination, and it was to our right, in Eugenie des Baths. Both of us looked over at the modest local bistro on the main street called Bistro d’Eugenie and thought, ‘Could that really be it?’ But two minutes further, there was an entrance to a grand estate with two well-dressed gentlemen at the gate to direct us through. So, this is what a three-star Michelin restaurant looks like. This is not at all just a restaurant. It is an ESTATE. With gardens and trees, all pruned and manicured, a huge main building with a spa off to the right, and tables with umbrellas in the front courtyard. It is a huge property, stately and beautiful, and we were kind of blown away by it even before we went in.

We were invited, upon entering, to have a drink in the ‘salon’ and were lead to a wing of the building with three large rooms in a design that combined old French drawing room with colonialism (animal tusks and two zebra skin chairs). There were bookshelves, leather chairs, and a grand piano. Our cocktail, the speciality of the house, had armagnac, crème de cassis and champagne and at 20 Euros each, cost alone more than our share of the meal the night before, delicious pintos in San Sebastian in Spain. But boy, was it tasty. Along with the cocktail they brought an incredible selection of amuse-bouche to accompany it, which made it rather more worth the price.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a restaurant where you get to relax and choose your menu in the salon… We sipped our cocktails, took numerous photos of each other and ended up choosing the most expensive menu, the ‘Enchanted Palace’, because the various delights of truffles and lobster and the dessert options were too tempting. The woman explained each dish and element of the dish with flair, and where there was a choice of two or three options, we each chose one so we could do our usual trick, of switching plates partway through (which the waiters thankfully pretended not to notice).

10590659_10152333365607671_8942249173475455268_nIn this age of ten-second blog posts and (website) lists, I think I might break with my regular model of blogs to do individual posts on dishes and courses, and leave this to just describe our entrance and exit, and overall impression but let me just say that the service was impeccable. It seemed very prescribed in terms of a hierarchy, the attractive wait staff smoothly moving around from place to place, perhaps in an orderly presentation to remove cloches (the only other time I was in a restaurant that used cloches was in Durban, South Africa and was done quite awkwardly). There was one beautiful woman whose role it seemed was just to ask whether all the courses were OK. Chef Michel made his rounds and came by and said hello, which we loved. He seems a lovely, gentle soul. HIs wife, Christine, who I think has taken the main role in running both the accommodation and the management of the hotel seemed a little shy, perhaps of foreigners speaking French badly!

10511286_10152333365842671_7026659330480509167_nWe decided that the meal would best be accompanied by a different glass of wine with each course, and we could leave it up to the sommelier to choose for us. The wines were wonderful, though I didn’t write them down. The Pouilly-Fumé that accompanied the lobster, with body and a smokey flavour, was a particularly amazing match, though drinking a 1927 Pedro Ximenez Sherry matched with various types of chocolate was… just… too… good. We didn’t ask the price of the matching wines beforehand so were pleasantly surprised at the end when it was about what could be expected.

10625132_10152333366342671_1618028138716217667_nAfter lunch, very full of both food and wonder, we took coffee in the front courtyard (lovely, as well with a candied orange and a chocolate biscuit). At 10 euros, it was the most expensive espresso of our trip, but it was part and parcel of the experience. We paid the bill of 330 Euro each, best not to think about it but one, we treated this as a very special occasion and two, this seems the price in Europe to pay for this quality of food, service and experience. Then, we went for a little walk around the back where we saw the full extent of the ‘spa’ wing, a vineyard and a swimming pool for guests of the hotel.

10511218_10152333017757671_7679571331133386389_nSo, now, we’ve tried a three-star Michelin restaurant.

A summary? While Michel Guérand is credited with ‘la cuisine mincer’, or slimming cuisine, we would bet our lives that this wasn’t it. This was rich, buttery, creamy food with intense flavours and luxury ingredients. The cooking techniques, I’m guessing, are contemporary adaptions of the classic, not tricky or molecular, but refined and stately, yet lively at the same time. I really wondered how, with less courses, Michel would match the heights of the degustation menus we’ve sampled with 12-20 courses each, but each dish here was substantial, and special.

The setting was completely unexpected in its grandeur and glory. It is perhaps not as old as I thought upon first entering, but it’s obvious that Madame Guérand comes from the background and experience to have created authentic and classic luxury, which I’ve never experienced before in such a form. Match that with the best of French service and spectacular surroundings and this truly was unforgettable, or as you would say in French, “incontournable”. We feel very lucky to have been there!

[I planned on adding photos to this review... but am now away from my home computer for a few months so can only grab a few from Facebook. It will look much better with more photos...]

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Restaurant Review: Cafe Trama

It’s raining in Paris, heavily in comparison to earlier on today when it was sprinkling with rain, kind of moist all over. But it’s not torrential like in some cities, and oh, this city glows, the streetlights and shoplights and restaurant lights all reflecting in the wet.


I decided that, being in Paris, I can’t resist treating myself to another meal out, and I turned to Tripadvisor again. It’s a funny thing, Tripadvisor. It attracts the worst and best opinions on each review, from people you might adore in person to others you wouldn’t want to be within 20 feet of. If restaurants are too good, they attract sour people. Often, highly rated restaurants seem to have some general appeal to tourists and obvious consistency, but seem perhaps odd to be rated among the top restaurants in the city. The highest rated restaurant in my neighbourhood in the 7th arrondissement seems a very plain Italian place with a boring menu of pizza and pasta that was empty when I walked by it tonight. IMG_2220

Still, I think that there must be some sort of crowd wisdom to put a restaurant at, say, #1634 out of 12,797, like the neighbourhood bistro I went to tonight, as compared to those in the 4000’s and 5000’s in the vicinity.

So, Cafe Trama. I called up to see if I could get in and was told that they *could* fit me in as long as I was out by 9pm. It was a quarter to eight so I thought I’d be fine, and indeed when I arrived, there was only one full table in the restaurant, a group of French and German work colleagues I think. Of course, I was seated right next to them, and at a table in the style I’m getting used to, where they have to shuffle it around in order to fit you in.

IMG_2218Still, the service was super charming, and for some reason, my French gets better the nicer they are. The waitress had full knowledge to be able to recommend wines to me, and I had a fruity but dry white wine to go with my Pork Rilette, which neighbours on both sides of me ordered as well. I wish I was like the two young Frenchwomen next to me and able to split it. It was delicious, but too rich and large a serving for only me.

My next wine was a Sainte-Foy Bordeaux, Chateau du Champs des Treilles 2012, slightly chilled and with a bit of body to go with my veal cheeks. It was SO good. My main was so beautiful presented, the individual vegetables arranged artfully. They’d been stewed along with the veal cheeks, so didn’t have a lot of texture, and I found the dish a little salty, frankly, but the cheeks were tender and had a bit of chewiness that I liked too.

IMG_2219Could I exercise restraint on stop there? Ban non! I finished with a berry clafoutis, basically a lovely custard pie. I like that it was a relatively simple dish to finish with. This bistros seem to focus on creating beautiful simple dishes, perhaps traditional with a twist (as next to me, they’d ordered croque monsieur for dinner!), something pure and direct about its composition.

I find it hard to give ratings these days, though I notice that I give a lot of 4 out of 5 stars. Would I rush back for the food (indicating 5 stars)? Not really. It was lovely but not extraordinary. IMG_2221But it was certainly not average. The thing is: if I was to rate a restaurant based on how I feel, to be in Paris, high on life, feeling lucky to the gills, that would be a 6 out of 5. So, I think based on how charming this restaurant is, and the wonderful, superb, friendly and skilled service, I’m going to give it a 5. I should at least try to raise its score in comparison to some of the mediocre but higher rated Tripadvisor restaurants…

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A little Monday night meal in Commerce

The thing is, in Paris, on a Monday night, most restaurants are closed. My friends were staying near Commerce and I did a pretty comprehensive search, I thought, on TripAdvisor, and I was having troubles coming up with options. Out of the 13,000 restaurant listings in Paris, Cafe Cosmos at #5708 was looking like it might be the best we could do… But showing up, on a rainy night, the menu looked rather uninspiring. Burgers. Salads. We had a drink at a regular bistro on Rue de Commerce instead, and then we spotted Le Cafe Du Commerce out of the corner of our eyes. It looked pretty nice from the outside…

And was even nicer on the inside (I should have taken photos). A beautiful open art deco space from 1921: very charming indeed. And somehow I’d missed it in my internet research. It’s ranked #2463! The service was very French, the menu was very French and extensive (and the French version offered much more than the English version). I think A. was happy with his little ramekin was aubergine and goat’s cheese. W. said that beetroot carpaccio was just as excuse for the delicious chevre cheese on top. I myself couldn’t resist trying the breaded bone marrow and toast, a fantastically odd dish, as you can see here…


I don’t think it needed the breading, which was a bit crude, but the bone marrow was tasty and strange and gelatinous and I’m glad I tried it. For our mains, W. had a mini pot roast, in its own pot, A. a classic steak with roquefort dressing and I couldn’t resist trying scorpion fish, because really, who wouldn’t want to order something that looks like this:

Though I suspect the common eating species looks more like this:

Scorpaena_papillosa_(Schneider_&_Forster,_1801)_Red_Rockcod,_or_red_scorpionfish,_"Grandaddy"And cooked it looked rather nice too (as below). If I’m back sometime, I’ll try the 12-hour pig’s trotter…

Meanwhile, all washed down with a bottle of dry white wine, we were far too full for dessert…

Frankly, with Paris rainy and slick with rain, shiny and cozy, and in some of the finest company I could imagine, the food didn’t really matter much at all, so the fact that we found an authentic French bistro with a menu slightly out of the ordinary on a Monday night was all we needed. That the food was tasty and the service amusing was a plus!


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Reading Hemingway in Paris

IMG_2184 Today, I have been reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He writes about his younger self in Paris, as a writer, living, without much money, on the Left Bank in Paris. I am a writer, just moved here to work for four months, not penniless but living on the Left Bank, for three weeks at an apartment I’ve rented through AirBNB, close to my work.

I think that reading Hemingway in Paris could sound terribly pretentious and immaturely romantic. But the thing is, I really didn’t know much about Hemingway at all. There are a few movies in the last few years that portray him, but neither particularly appealed to me. This book happened to be on the shelf of the apartment, and is slim and appealing.

I’m captivated by the book. He lived to the east of here, not very far at all from here. The city he describes, apartments across the way with squat toilets, buying bundles of firewood for the apartment he is working in, the horses in the streets and the Bohemian community of ex-pat writers, is very far from Paris of today but the places he lived and ate and wandered are all still here. He writes simply with wry observation of an interesting life. It’s a romantic vision: of working hard at one’s chosen craft of writing, creative success, sexual and romantic passion for his wife, horseracing and boxing, and the colourful figures of his literary and artistic world.

IMG_2197I can see how it has appealed to romantics and writers for many decades, though I wonder about the new generation of writers. How do they match his world up to this current world of writing, of twitter and facebook and blogs, of worldwide bestsellers, and surprise smash success that takes less hard work than marketing smarts and quite a bit of luck? But the thrill of living outside of one’s country wouldn’t have subsided, nor the romance of creative success, or surviving on little money.He writes a number of times of long strolls through les Jardins de Luxembourg, and that’s where I read a chapter or two today, surely the last day of a long summer, early October but so warm it was hot and I’d wished I’d worn a t-shirt instead of a long-sleeve shirt. I don’t imagine Hemingway could have pictured it as it was today, filled with tourists, tennis-players, children on organised pony rides. It was packed.

Tonight is La Nuit Blanche, an all-night event with art installations and exhibits throughout the city. I feel far too old to stay up all night, though I hope I’ll manage to keep awake until 11pm when I’m to meet a friend who knows one of the visiting artists. We’ll hopefully see his work together.

IMG_2389I decided to treat myself to a meal out tonight, and returned to a neighbourhood gem, Au Pied de Fouet, which has apparently been around for 150 years. The food is no frills: simple, honest and very tasty. The waitresses ask you for your order right away, and are brisk and efficient. The tables are cheek to jowl. There is a bank of 3 tables on one side, that fit four people each, but for people to sit down, the tables have to be moved out or to the side or jostled about. If you are two, or one, as I was tonight, you sit next to other people.

My meal was the simplest fare: a potato salad with apple and chicken, chicken livers with mashed potatoes, and a chestnut cream, that I didn’t know of until I’d ordered it, a thick, rich, sweet chestnut paste served with fresh cream on top of it. I washed this down with one glass of white and two glasses of red. I have a list of over 300 French wines with the designation Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), a sort of territorial quality control, and while I was thinking it might be hard to check them all off, if I manage three a night, as I did this evening, I will do just fine.

IMG_2375I loved the experience of the restaurant for being so humble and honest. There were a few children in the restaurant, probably regulars, funny, unguarded and loud as children sometimes are. A dog that was in the kitchen at the start of the evening disappeared after the first visitors arrived. It was quiet for the first 20 minutes; I had arrived when it opened. And then, suddenly, it was packed, people upstairs and down. If they arrived without all members of their party, they drank a glass of wine or an aperitif in front of the cash register, not that there really was room there.

Two lovely older women next to me started a conversation after I offered to pour them tap water from a bottle on the table. They had wandered by the restaurant on their way to see La Nuit Blanche exhibits. One recommended a restaurant where they candy vegetables right in front of you for dinner at a reasonable price. I’ll try it when I can.

IMG_2376The host started doing a joke voice before I left, a low and gutteral sound, I’m not sure what the routine implied, but with the dog and the children I thought it all hilarious and told him so, and he gave me a splash of cognac to drink and insisted I take not one but a handful of business cards to give to my Canadian friends. Somehow, when I said I was from Canada, he guessed Vancouver immediately.While I’d planned to explore the art immediately, the weather suddenly became chilly, so I’ve dropped by the apartment to grab something warmer. And now off to La Nuit Blanche I go.

IMG_2390Before I’d visited Paris for the first time, I received the one and only postcard ever from Sandra, a literary Irishwoman from my college, dramatic and brainy, who none of us ever heard from again. She wrote, ‘Paris is a moveable feast’, and while I looked it up to see it was from Hemingway’s book, I don’t think I ever properly looked up the quotation in full:

‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’

It’s funny to read it now. I certainly love the ring of the phrase, ‘moveable feast’, as it implies that Paris is a feast, and its liveliness is in motion. But seeing the quote properly, Hemingway uses moveable not in this way: Paris is a feast, and that feast can be transported in your mind to other places… though with another disclaimer: if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man.

Perhaps the quote became popular because it was inaccurate, and that Paris remains in the minds of even those who have not lived here, or are not young. I’m only one week into my sojourn here and think this city will be staying with me for a long time.

By chance, the New York Times has published an article about Hemingway this week that reminds me of his sad end, the happy drinking of his Paris days turned to alcoholism, the happy times written about in A Moveable Feast something that was finite and later in life, longed for and romanticised, perhaps in a desperate way.

Perhaps the sentiment of the phrase and quote can be completely separate from Paris itself, and instead refer to anything that is lost and longed for, a happiness unsustainable and the loss of innocence when you know it is so.

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A little trip to southwest France

As much for my own records as to provide advice, I thought I’d do a little summary of our August 2014 trip:

We’d decided probably a year before that France would be our destination, but where?

So many places to see in the country. S. proposed Alsace, or the northwest or Bordeaux, and in the end I chose Bordeaux as a starting point as it seemed the most exotic of places to me: it would be touched by the warmth of summer in August and offered great wine and food.

Planning was a combination of whim and design. We built our itinerary around a few restaurants, a few meetings with friends, and my desire to cross the border into Spain and see the Guggenheim in Bilbao and San Sebastian. Guidebooks didn’t help us. The ones I found seemed to only focus one particular area, and our destinations really seemed to cross over various departaments and regions. Everything was chosen to be within a few hours of driving from each other.

Here’s what it looked like:

  • 2-4 August, Paris, to settle in and eat at a few good restaurants and ride around arrondissements we were unfamiliar with on vélibs, the free bikes. Train to Bordeaux.
  • 4-6 August, Bordeaux, which surprised me how beautiful and easy it was, an amazing old town, filled with great restaurants, and a free bike scheme!
  • 6 August, day trip out of Bordeaux to try to see some famous vineyards like Château Lafite Rothschild or Château Margaux and see the Arcachon Dune. This was our only real day of failure during the trip. We thought we could brave it without the satellite navigation (satnav) and basically couldn’t find anything. We arrived at one of the Rothschild estates during their long mid-day break. We got stuck in wall-to-wall summer traffic and couldn’t even get out to the dune. We made up for the frustrating day with a wonderful dinner though.
  • With a few days in both Paris and Bordeaux, we stayed in AirBNB apartments, both modest, with great views, and charmingly decorated by their owners, both young stylish French women. The only challenge was lugging our luggage up 4 or 5 flights of stairs… and the beds weren’t great quality.
  • 7 August, S. had heard that the area around Perigueux was beautiful and how right he was. We drove and wandered through beautiful old towns, such as St-émilion Castillon and Perigueux, visited an abandoned fortress, the Chateau du Gurson, and ended up at the absolutely stunning Chateau de Lalande near Saint-Emilion, our second favourite accommodation of the trip.
  • 8 August, more lovely towns in Perigord, and ending up in Les Eyzies, mostly because it was a convenient place to meet Emma, a college friend, the next day for kayaking on the Dordogne. We saw some amazing castles in this area, and the ones on the banks of the Dordogne were particularly stunning. One had fantastic topiary! Les Eyzies was a strange place. It’s where everyone hangs out to go to caves with primitive drawings and as neither of us had any desire to see these or the caves (which I hear are quite impressive), the place felt a bit false and commercial.
  • 9-10 August, kayaking on the Dordogne couldn’t have been a better way to catch up with a friend. It was lovely, beautiful and inexpensive to do a 4 hour kayak. We chose a part of the river less populated, which was gorgeous, though I think another time I’d like to do the part of the river with more castles on it.
  • We headed that evening into Albi, which had a completely different feel, one of the red towns, with red and pink brick, and a lovely river running through it. On our way there, we did a quick stop at a museum in Les Arques dedicated to the artist Ossip Zadkine, who’d moved there because Paris was too expensive. Then Cahors, which looked pretty fun and lively, and we did a wine tasting (of Cahors’ famous black wines, so named for how dark red they are, made up mainly of Malbec grapes). It was perfect.The department of Lot was very different, rolling hills and eventually dramatic steep cliffs which reminded us of driving through Switzerland and Northern Italy.
  • Staying two nights in a place was really our preference so we didn’t have to check out and then check in again, though doing that did allow us to see more places, none of which we regret. A whole day in Albi was great, going to their covered market (with amazing cheese!), visiting the Toulouse-Latrec museum, and a lovely dinner with S.’s friend, daughter and son-in-law. On our way out to the next destination, we stopped in Cordes-en-Ciel, this crazy medieval city high on a hillside, had a wander through Toulouse, and checked out Pau.
  • 11-12 August. Oloron St Marie probably wouldn’t be my choice for a place to stay, it seemed without particular charm, and we missed going to the Lindt Chocolate Factory which seemed a prime attraction… but staying here allowed us to go on the most magnificent hike in the Pyrenees, just south of here, up some harrowing roads by car, to the base of a park. Ah, the lakes, the horses, the cows and their cowbells! Lac de Bious-Artìgues in the Vallée d’Ossau. It was a surprisingly hard hike, but well worth it.
  • 13 August was visiting my friends in Le Gers (stopping at a tower on the way in Bassoues). In Gers, we saw their new summer house, and then had a nice lunch in Jegun. In the afternoon we went to Lectoure and wandered on the main street and into a store with local delicacies which was the best of the trip with its selections of armagnac and foie gras (“La Boutique Fleurons de Lomage”. For dinner, we’d chosen Le Florida as a destination both to eat and stay. It was a wonderful and faultless meal, but the bigger surprise was this amazing luxurious accommodation in a very stylish room with a spa! And more (see my review…). A great stay and our favourite accommodation of the trip.
  • I would’ve stayed here another night if we’d had a chance and used it as a base to visit more small towns in the vicinity. The inspiration for visiting this area was a New York Times article that talked about the area being relatively underdeveloped for tourism, but offering some particular culinary delights in a pastoral setting.
  • 14 August was another New York Times day. This article talked about how unusual the wines are from Irouléguy and I thought it would be fun to see Basque country in France. Accommodation was a bit hard to come by in the bigger city of St Etienne de Baigorry, so we found a charming family-run hotel in Banca, and checked in after doing a fantastic wine tasting in St Etienne. The colours of the window shutters changed from their pale blues of the Gers and around the Dordogne to brick red here, Basque language signage appeared, and it felt like another completely different part of the country.
  • 15-16 August, The drive the next day over the Pyrenees into Spain was absolutely stunning. My god. Scenery! We arrived in San Sebastian on its busiest day of the year, which was a bit overwhelming but settled into the crazy, buzzy energy of Spain, watched fireworks that were part of a festival two nights in a row, ate stunning pintxos (tapas) and on our second day did a day trip to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim which was wonderful.
  • 17 August. We drove through San Jean de Pied and Biarritz, two packed seaside holiday locations, just to have a look on our way up to the amazing Prés d’Eugénie in Eugénie les Bains, a three-star Michelin restaurant and a perfect way to crown our trip. Lunch was three hours, at least, and we were in somewhat of a food coma afterwards matched with the delirium of such a wonderful experience.
  • 18 August, our final night was based on an expressed like for Sauternes, the sweet wine, by S. We found an amazing little chateau, were upgraded to a huge room, and got a tasting and a lengthy and interesting explanation on how the tiny area produces the only yearly natural sweet wine (rather than deliberately infected by botrytis as with Australian dessert wines), a “gift from god”, the fellow explained. We watched the sunset over rows and rows of grapevines that night, our last before we took the back from Bordeaux the next morning and a quick overnight in Paris…

It really was a magical trip, in an amazing region. If you want any advice, or have any questions about the trip, please ask!

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The Amazing Abtronic

Tucked away in an inconspicuous shelf, I found a shiny grey plastic case with blue lettering on it: ‘Abtronic: The Future of Fitness’.

The Amazing AbtronicHow did I come to own this miracle device? Or even bring it with me from various places that I’ve lived over the years. It might be fifteen years old!

A little history then. My father was not an active man. He tried, over the years, to exercise, but I have a photo of him as a baby where he has the chubbiest cheeks and is really a little heavy already. It seemed written into this genes.

He played badminton at one time, and after that, what I remember most is that he would buy a different exercise machine every few years, depending on what was popular. There was the exercise bike, then the mini-trampoline (which I loved) and then a rowing machine. In the last decade of his life, there was even Wii Fit. He would step on and off the Balance Board. Its its perky cartoon voice would even say how heavy he was.

What he liked to do most, really, was lie back in his Lazy-Boy chair (a series of one or two of them over the years; these lasted a long time), read the newspaper and watch TV. With particular ingenuity, late in life he managed to combine watching TV with occasional exercise. The exercise bike was the one machine that did not come and go. After many years when Mom got sick of the shouting dramatics of professional wrestling which Dad had watched since childhood (and had changed much over time), he would be banished to the basement to the second TV where he would watch it at the same time as exercise.

I can’t quite figure out the exact dated but what I remember was a fairly long Christmas holiday in Hawaii. Hawaii is where my mom was born and where my brother Tom and his family live, having moved into Grandma’s old beachside house after she’d died.

It was a long enough holiday that I kept seeing ads on TV for the Abtronic: a belt that would send electrical pulses to your stomach, making it contract as if you were doing an exercise. The pitch was that it was easy, compact and you could do it anytime, for example, while watching TV. It was not expensive, perhaps $50.

This, I thought, was perfect for Dad.

I asked him if he’d seen the ads and then tried to gauge his opinion, if he thought it would be a good idea, if he might use it.

On Christmas morning, I opened up a gift addressed to me from Dad. Inside was the Abtronic.

I had talked about it so much that he had thought I was hinting for him to buy one for me.

He opened up a gift from me: another Abtronic.

Did it work? No.

Did we try it? Yes.

It required that you’d smear a water-based gel on the back of it so that the electrical pulses would go from the little mechanism to your stomach. It felt uncomfortable and strange, these tiny shocks and contractions. I justified it to myself saying that it could supplement my doing other abdominal exercises, and exercising in general.

The Kit

But really, it was ridiculous. Why would I as a young, fit person try some silly unproven technology rather than do a few sit-ups?  I’d have to chalk it up to family loyalty: our love of gadgets, our search for a quick fix, and the hope that we could get exercise without actually doing it! Also, a bit of folkloric belief in magic, not so different from grandma’s prayer beads that were in a wooden bowl, not far from us at any time that Christmas.

So, goodbye Abtronic. In the garbage you go. If I’d tried to use it in the last decade it would most likely have given me a hernia, an electric shock or both. I salute your preposterous sales pitch, bow down to how you convinced us to buy not one, but two of you at the same time, and I allow us our trespasses, nonsensical and embarrassing family particularities that make us who we are.

P.S. Does anyone want my Wii and Wii Fit?

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Hotel Review: Auberge Florida, Castera-Verduzan, France

IMG_2151Auberge Florida

2 Rue du Lac, 32410 Castera-Verduzan, France

You would not guess from the humble exterior of this restaurant that inside are two rooms for guests, and that the experience offered would be one of a luxury get-away. I would recommend it without reservation for a romantic getaway, which you can combine with an amazing meal at the restaurant and some lovely sightseeing in the area, whether the lovely small towns of St Puy, Jegun and Monluc (where you should load up on liqueur, armagnac and wine from the chateaux) or the bustling capital of Gers, Auch.

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We found our way to this restaurant from a random travel article I found in the New York Times extolling the delights of Gers, a quieter and humbler version of more visited areas like the Dordogne or Aquitaine, awash in Armagnac (one of my favourite drinks ever) and Foie-Gras (with apologies to those who are uncomfortable with Foie-Gras but I really love it…).

Part of its charm is its story, Baptiste, the son who lived in Paris for 12 years, working in luxury fashion, returning to his hometown and family to help his parents modernise a long-running traditional restaurant. With the peak tourist season really only lasting during August, Baptiste felt the restaurant too large, and convinced his parents to let him turn the top floor into two rooms of accommodation.

IMG_2147Our room was the “spa” room because of a large jacuzzi in one of its rooms. The fun starts right from the entrance, with astroturf, an explosion of decorative butterflies on the wall, and a cage rather than a wardrobe for hanging clothes and a security locker.

The bedroom, with high ceilings, had a super-comfortable bed and pillows with linen sheets which felt lovely and cool and made us wonder who has to iron them.

IMG_2149There was some extremely stylish furniture and a basket of fresh fruit. The toilet room, with a small selection of books and toy figures, with obvious personal meaning for the owners, is equipped with a Japanese toilet, one of those ones that washes, dries and warms…

IMG_2150The bathroom had an amazing shower, stylish and contemporary fittings, two big white bathrobes in the drawer, samples of local toothpaste (the area is apparently famous not only for its thermal baths to take care of your skin and health, but for taking care of your dental hygiene) and Aesop products, a luxury Australian brand. Oh, and there was a nice selection of magazines and our own little patio area. IMG_2152

For one night, the cost was 160 Euros (230 Australian dollars), which, if you’re splitting the cost with your partner, comes to a cool 80 Euros each. An intimate luxury experience like this in Australia would cost at least double this, if not more.

Plus, it felt like a very personal experience, that the room was a labour of love for Baptiste who has tried to make every detail perfect, and every product and furnishing of the highest quality. Breakfast was delivered to our room in a basket and on the patio, we ate croissants and pain chocolat, fresh local yoghurt with a lovely fresh fruit compote, fresh orange juice, coffee (each in our own individual thermos) and today’s international edition of the New York Times. IMG_2156

I thought with our magnificent experience at Chateau de Lalande near Perigueux, that that would be my best review of this trip. But with my specialised taste for a truly individual experience combined with very affordable luxury, I really loved our night at Le Florida. Tell me if you ever have the chance to go.


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Restaurant Review: Cafe Paci

I’ve found a new favourite restaurant in Sydney and it’s name is Paci. Café Paci opened in August 2013 in the site of the old Cafe Pacifico. It’s witty that the Finnish chef Pasi simply shortened the name of the previous restaurant into a homophone for his own name. It’s meant to be a ‘pop-up’ restaurant but when have restaurants stopped popping up and are permanent?

So, why I’m thrilled by this restaurant by this restaurant: Each course was inventive, surprising and delicious and didn’t really taste like anything else I’d had before. It reminded me of some of the culinary highlights of last year’s Scandinavian trip. The food was very rich but not heavy. Dairy products were used. There was a focus on just a few ideas done well in each dish: Corn. Goat. Carrot. It made me think about the individual ingredients used.

And: it was ridiculously good value. $85pp (without grog) for a nine-course menu. It felt at a much higher-price point than that.

I didn’t take photos of everything… but almost. The ‘snacks’ were wafer-thin crisp pieces of pear, a sashimi fish with a layer of lard, and grilled thin radicchio leaves with raspberry powder. Really!

snacks... I didn’t take a photo of the ‘Pomelo, blue swimmer crab, dill and vadouvan (I had to look this up, it’s a French-influenced Indian spice mix)’ but I loved the delicate teardrops of pomelo and their textural contrast to the crab.

I also didn’t get a photo of the goat tartar, with a great tartare sauce (again the homonym, it must be his thing…) and kale. Who would have thought that raw goat would taste so good?

The cauliflower, squid rice and anchovy butter was rich and flavourful without being too much. Beautiful colours as you can imagine.


Above was my favourite dish of the night though not universally liked by everyone at our table. I thought it was super-creative to interpret the ingredients of a Vietnamese classic dish, a bowl of Pho, in a different, dry version. The layer of wagyu beef here covers thin noodles made out of potato, slightly crunchy. A bit of enoki mushrooms, lemon. Mmm. Very more-ish.

Desserts were just as engaging. A beautiful liquorice cake with carrot mousse covered in yoghurt. Comes as a little white cloud and then reveals it’s pretty colours once you dig in.


I couldn’t get over how pretty this one was: wafers of apple, white better, cocoa and malt, architecturally arranged over rye ice cream.

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Gorgeous from all angles.

Finally, fairy floss (or cotton candy) with the flavours of corn and butter… matched with a tiny piece of pork crackle and pork and fennel. Completely unexpected. Teased with the idea that it would be savoury but it was mostly sweet.


And there’s another reason why this place won my fancy. If you’ll remember from my review of Momofuku restaurant, anywhere that serves pork as a dessert gets my badge of honour.

A final word: the restaurant is all painted in the same shade of grey. Behind the bar looms a large portrait of a man with a moustache, his eyes, the outline of his hair appearing barely. But the rest: tables, chairs, walls and floor are grey. It’s a bit disconcerting and reminded me of the minimalist white kitchen that Eddy ordered in Absolutely Fabulous and then even she didn’t like it…

That white kitchen

So my recommendation. Don’t wear grey. The waiters (all of whom were charming and personable) may not be able to find you after you sit down.

But do go and eat at this wonderful restaurant.

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