Saturday, June 30, 2012

London markets and a bit of modern art

Food called today in London.  After a morning hanging out with friends, we headed to the borough markets.  Situated right in the middle of London, just next to London Bridge, the Borough Markets are a fantastic mix of fresh fruit, veggies and meat and cooked things ready to eat.

We wandered the stalls till we found the toasted cheese sandwhiches that we had been told were a must.  They were brilliant.  Packed full of delicious cheese and an onion and spring onion mix.  They reminded S of Welsh rarebit and it disappeared in no time at all.

We continued through, tasting all sorts of delicious delights until we came across the fish and chips stand.  Fish and chips were my must eat thing in the UK, so we stopped in and I got a piece of cod and chips.  They were great.  S who doesn't eat fish even didn't mind the cod and we thought the chips were better than Heston's last night!  All in all a perfect fish and chips experience.

Absolutely stuffed we headed to the Tate Modern for a bit of culture.  It is a very new museum and I enjoyed many of the exhibits but modern art isn't really S's cup of tea.

We visited the markets again on our way back, this time to stock up for dinner that we are cooking our friends.  It might sound like a quiet day but it has been just lovely.

Friday, June 29, 2012

A country day out and dinner at Dinner

After a week in cities, it was lovely to escape to the country.  We headed out of London into the Cotswolds to see some quinticentially English villages and visit a dear friend of mine, Floss and her darling girl Bess.

After catching a train through the verdant green fields, they picked us up and we headed to a small village along country lanes lined with drystone walls.  First stop was a quaint little tea shop for refreshing drinks and some traditional morning tea items.  We had between us a lardy cake, a bakewell tart, a chelsea bun and a toasted tea cake.

We wandered the streets looking in a gorgeous odds and ends shop and other delightful places before heading to a real village out of the picture books.  There was a stream with ducks and swans (my comment of the day, white swans are just so weird looking they are black in my head) stone bridges, cute cottages that we are at least a foot too tall for.

After that we headed into Cirencester, Floss's home town.  We had a wander, investigated the Roman ampitheatre out the back of her house (Cirencester was the second largest Roman city outside of London) and generally had a lovely time.

We were blessed with lovely weather and the day seemed to wrap far too fast.

But we had to head back into town for a very important reservation - we were having dinner at Dinner - Heston Blumenthal's London resturant.  It is located in the Mandarin Oriental and even though we were early we were seated quite quickly.

Dinner is based on food from old cookbooks, rather than the molecular gastromy that he is known for at Fat Duck.  The resturant itself looks a bit more bistro like than resturant like, but has a fantastic view of the kitchen through huge windows.  You can see the whole team working away like crazy and things like whole pineapples roasting on spits.

The meal was delicious.  We shared an entree of meat fruit.  It looked stunning, exactly like a mandarin but tasted like the creamiest most delicate pate.

For main, S had rib eye with mushroom ketchup and I had powdered duck breast and we shared his triple cooked fries and buttered lettuce and peas.  The steak was great and the mushroom ketchup fantastic.  I'm not sure what was powdered about my duck, but it was deliciously tender.

We shared dessert too, a Quaking Pudding. It was a bit like a pannacotta but softer and more slippery, with poached pears and nutmeg caramel sauce. It was yummy but the nutmeg was a bit overpowering.

All in all, a delicious meal but in terms of restaurant experience, not in my top five.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shop till you drop ... London style

Today we hit the streets of London for a day of shopping.  We beat a well worn path down Oxford Street, stopping in all the big names, Zara, Top Shop, Marks and Spencer, the list goes on.  However we were obviously in a fussy mood, by the end of the day I had only bought one pair of trousers (hint, in the UK, trousers are the word for outerwear, pants means undies) and S had a pair of shoes and some shorts.

A small haul but we still enjoyed ourselves looking through all the different shops and were consistently amazed at how much cheaper the prices are here.

As lunch time arrived, we headed down a random side street and found an incredibly popular looking resturant.  It was based on Lebanese street food and it was delicious.  I had a meze plate and S had a wrap but we shared and it was all so good.  I washed mine down with a delicious watermelon lemonade, S had a reasonable cappuchino - an achievement in London.

After lunch we took a break from the shopping and headed to the British Museum.  We wandered from exhibits like the Rosetta Stone (S's comment "it can't be the real one" - oh yes it was) to the marbles of the Parthenon, through rooms of rare and ancient clocks, to the treasures of Egypt.  It is an amazing place.  They even had a set of the gold medals that will be used at this year's olympics - they are huge probably at least 15cm across.  The city is really, really in olympics mode with the rings on just about everything that isn't draped with bunting from the jubilee.

But all cultured up more shopping called.  Well I don't know if it is exactly shopping, more of an experience.  I took S to Harrods.  It is a crazy shopping mecca, filled with excited tourists as far as I can tell.  To tell the truth it was rather overwhelming.

It has been another full on day in London, so tomorrow we are headed to the country-side.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sunshine, the tower, and the price to enter a church

Our first day in the UK dawned sunny and warm - I know, we were as surprised as you.  But with such gorgeous day an outside activity called, so we headed into town and to the Tower of London via St Paul's Cathedral.  We were astonished to find that St Paul's has a £16 entry fee so we admired the outside and headed along up the river to the tower.


We had perfect timing arriving just as a tour began.  The Beefeaters of the tower do the tours and I have to say it was a highly entertaining and informative.  Over an hour we wandered the tower complex (in a giant crowd, I think it must have been close to 100 people) learning the intricate history of kings and queens, traitors and martyrs.

The tour over we took our own time to wander around, seeing the crown jewels, amazing suits of armour and taking in the history of the place.  We spent hours, it was fascinating.  With the sunshine, it was busy but it is a big place and I have to say the crowd of small children with homemade crowns were gorgeous.

We wandered around up the Thames, shared a burger at a pub and made our way to Westminster.  We saw the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey (it has another £16 entry fee!) just as it started to spit rain so we called it a day.  Which was probably just as well as by then we had managed to get ourselves rather sunburnt - yes you can get sunburn in the UK.

It is just lovely to be able to return to our friend's home for a meal and to put our feet up ready for a day when the plan is shopping.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Goodbye Paris, Hello London

In an attempt to at least pretend to be eating healthily, we have been having muesli for breakfast.  However in a brilliant piece of timing it ran out yesterday meaning we had to visit the local boulangerie for breakfast today.

For those of you coming to Paris, look out for boulangeries.  If it just says boulanger, or nothing at all, it most likely means that they buy their dough in ready made and just bake it, or buy the baked good from a mass manufacturer.  If it says boulangerie, you know that there is an actual baker on the premises who has made the goods from scratch.

We had a croissant buerre (a straight croissant made with butter, vs a curved one made with margarine), a pain aux raisin (snail shape with raisins) and a pain aux chocolate (chocolate croissant).  They were so yummy.  Topped off with the leftover raspberries and cherries from yesterday it was a perfect final meal in Paris.

We set off for the Eurostar, made our way through customs, and were confronted by a giant queue of people.  It turned out that a previous train had 'an incident with a person on the train line' and there were delays.  Long, long delays.  Roughly 3 hours of sitting on the floor of a crowded train station we made our way on.

From there it was a fairly seemless journey.  In regards to my Dad's question about what the tunnel look like, it is long and black! I slept a lot of the way, it was a quiet journey and we were soon in London.  Oyster cards were purchased and in no time at all, we were at my best friend's house.  It is so gorgeous to be with friends on the other side of the world.

The journey may not have been as planned but we have arrived and London awaits!

Monday, June 25, 2012

To market to market to buy fresh bread, fruit and cheese

A combination of late nights, flight related sleep-deprivation and the general tiredness that comes as you start to really relax on a holiday has us tired, very tired.  Today was grey, cold and wet and it would have been easy to spend it in bed, but we are in Paris, so we gathered ourselves and headed out.

Being a Sunday we headed to the Bastille metro station and out to the Boulevard Rechard-Lenoir market.  If you are ever in Paris on a Sunday I suggest you do the same.  It is a massively long market selling everything including fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, meat, cheese, bread, smallgoods and cooked things, like the stalls with whole chickens on rotisseries and potatoes cooking in the fat below.  There are fresh flowers, a few souvenirs, even clothes.  All in all a gorgeous place to spend some time.

Yes for those of you who read French they are all strawberries!


We stocked up for lunch, fresh bread and camembert (now is apparently the best time for camembert as the milk is at its peak), white cherries and raspberries and a coffee eclair.  Eclairs come in two shapes in France, there are the long ones we are used to as well as round ones that look a little like a brioche.  They come in a range of flavours including vanilla and caramel, but the most common are chocolate and coffee.  We bought a coffee one.

By then the rain had started so we retreated to a cafe for coffee and hot chocolate.  We should have gone a street back, we paid tourist prices, but it was delicious and warming.

Fortified we headed back to our apartment for a delicious, market fresh lunch.  I highly recommend smushing raspberries onto your camembert on fresh sourdough - yum!

We considered options for the afternoon.  The rain was getting heavier, so inside activities called.  We considered something cultural, but with plenty more museum options on our trip, we opted for a foodie experience to end our time in Paris.  We headed to the macaron mecca - Laduree.

There was a queue to get into the cafe and despite the rain we joined it.  A reasonably short time later we were shown into the salon.  It is quite lovely, with painted ceilings and gilded pillars as well as the traditional Laduree pale green.  Still full from lunch, we decided to share a tart (don't worry, macarons do come into this story).  It was a crisp short biscuit base filled with a delicate passionfruit creme patissier and topped with fresh raspberries.  It was truly delicious.

S had another expresso, he has been enjoying them hugely.  I had tea "Josephine" with flavours of orange, lemon, grapefruit and jasmin it was delicate and delicious.  It was all fantastic, the only fault we could find it that the sugar cubes did not come with a serving device.

After we had finished we headed next door into the boutique and stocked up on macarons for our dessert.  We chose pistachio, coffee, lemon and basil, raspberry, rose, and salted caramel.  They were carefully transported back to the apartment in now driving rain.  Our favourite was the salted caramel but we agreed with our tour guide from the other day, the Pierre Herme ones were better.

While the rain was a bit disappointing on our last day in Paris, this week has been a wonderful start to our trip.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tourists, Sleep and Food

It seemed a remarkably short time after we went to bed that we got up this morning.  Still we headed out, back to the area we had been last night, Montmatre.

At the very top of Montamtre sits the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur - the church of the sacred heart.  It is a gorgeous building with a fantastic view.  Inside many of the domes are covered with amazing mosaics (no photography allowed though) and those without a fear of heights - i.e. not me - can even climb onto the roof and see the dome close up.

The area however is a tourist mecca and the streets were thronging with people and kitch souvenir sellers.  On the way back down we headed a few streets over and had a much more pleasant time roaming the quiet streets lined with some lovely boutiques.  There are times when the tourists do rather spoil Paris (says this tourist).

We ate a custard and chocolate croissant type thing, I see nothing wrong with eating pastries for lunch and saw these funny drinks in a window.


Plans were made for the afternoon but the very late night and the still present sleep debt from the flight won out.  It is sometimes hard to stop being on the go when you are traveling and want to see so much of a city but it was very necessary and we felt much better for it.

We had dinner at a local restaurant.  The one we had been recommended was closed (surprisingly a lot of places were closed on a Saturday) but we found somewhere nearby and had a nice if unexceptional meal.  I think it will be another early night to set us up for our last day in Paris.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Shopping, Eating, Dancing Girls

What a busy day yesterday was!

We began with a visit to the Gallaries Lafayette, a very old and beautiful department store situated behind the Paris Opera house.  The building that houses the women's stuff is the original and is centered around a large open space 5 stories tall topped with a beautiful stained glass dome.  It is stuffed with amazing designer wear, I however bought a pair of sockettes which I forgot from home.

The adjoining building houses menswear and an amazing gourmet food court.  It looked and smelled delicious.

We paused for a coffee (S's first real Parisian expresso), hot chocolate and croissant, then had a quick trip home to pick up some warmer tops, it was quite cool, then headed to the Musee d'Orsay.  Unfortunately my until then flawless reading of the metro maps failed me and we wandered about for awhile and then took quite a long walk down the seine to get there.  But it was so worth it, it is an amazing building, especially after the massive refurbishment it recently underwent and there is just nowhere in the world you could see that concentration of amazing impressionist art (plus a whole section on art nouveau furniture which I love).

We headed home, stopping to pick up a very yummy almond croissant (lunch - well we are in Paris after all) had a rest and then got ourselves dressed up as we headed to a big night out.  We had booked on a tour for dinner, a river cruise and a Moulin Rouge show!

The dinner was to be at the Eiffel Tower, however it has problems with its lifts at the moment with only one working.  This means the queue to get up can be over 2 hours long - clearly not ideal for a dinner reservation, so we had been moved.  The next disappointment came with they announced it was to be a set menu and the main was going to be fish.  Those of you who know S will know he does not eat fish.  However it all worked out.  The restaurant, Les Ombres (the shadows) is in the top of an art gallery - the Musee de Quai Branly - with an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower.  They organised a different meal  for S and the food was delicious.

We started with an appitizer of some tiny cheesy puff pastry things, before moving on to entree of a most extremely delicious soup.  The combination of a noisy restaurant and the waiter's accent meant I don't know exactly what the soup was but I think it was a veloute with spinach and ricotta pasta.  It was sublime.

Main was fish for me, chicken for S.  They were both very nice, not quite the standard of the the entree though.

But dessert - chocolate cubed - was great. A round of chocolate mousse sat on a very thin layer of chocolate cake, topped with a macaron shell and a chocolate wafer.  The plate was finished with a swirl of chocolate sauce.  The meal wrapped up with a coffee and petit fours of mini friands.

All in all a delicious meal with a spectacular view.

From there we were herded onto a river boat for an hour long cruise of the seinne with commentary.  It was lovely but a tad chilly.

Finally we headed up to Monmatre and the Moulin Rouge.  Unfortunately we were quite late arriving and our tables were right at the back with a slightly limited view, but the show started moments after we sat down.  I have to say I expected a higher quality of dancing.  The costumes are amazing and those girls really can do a high kick, but the dancing was somewhat limited and not necessarily sychronised.  Possibly I'm over analysing this as a dancer.

The show is songs and dancing, plus other acts.  The best were two male gymnasts.  They stole the show from the girls.  Yup, even the men agreed that their act beat half naked dancing ladies - although the act in a swimming pool filled with water and pythons did have a few people gasping.  Still it was a fantastic thing to see, I highly recommend it, a true Parisian experience.

It was after 2am by the time we got home - hence the belated post.  Still Paris continues to prove to be a very entertaining city.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mona Lisa, Chocolate, Macaroons

What an amazing day we have had.  After I wrote yesterday's blog, we ate some food and collapsed into bed at about 8pm.  Roughly 12 hours later we got up.  I was so tired by the end of the day I actually had to re-read the blog to check I hadn't written anything insane (which luckily I hadn't).  So it was a much refreshed pair that headed out into Paris today.

Today was all about culture and food.  Culture began on the metro with an accordion player serenading the car.  Ok I know he was a Romnany gypsy probably distracting unsuspecting tourists from pickpocketers but it was still nice.

Next up was the Musee de Louvre.  With excellent timing we arrived after the rain had stopped and just before it opened, meaning a not too long queue.  We made our way in through the pyramid, bought tickets and headed straight up to see the Mona Lisa.  I've seen her before so I wasn't surprised about her size, just mainly annoyed that you are kept so far away it is almost impossible to really appreciate the painting.  Still because we were early the crowd was fairly shallow - not a whole room full like when we passed by later.

We decided to take a wander and see what we will see approach to the Louvre.  It is full of so many brilliant and amazing works of art, we figured it didn't really matter what we saw, it would all be great.  We spent about 3.5 hours walking kilometers admiring amazing paintings, sculptures, antiquities etc.  However in many places the building itself takes the prize.  I became a little obsessed with ceilings, they are just so beautiful and intricate.

And for me no visit to the Louvre would be complete without a shot of Winged Victory.  Ever since I saw Audrey Hepburn run down these stairs in her red Givenchy gown in the movie Funny Face I've loved this statue.

As the hours wore on the occasional rest stop became more frequent, so we decided to head to the second part of our day - food.  We had signed up for a chocolate and pastry tour of Paris and boy was it delicious.  Our guide took us around the streets of Saint Germaine des Pres introducing us to some amazing chocolatiers and boulongeries.

We had a lot of stops and many, many delicious things to try.  I won't run you through all of them, but there were a few notable stops worthy of mention.

Patrick Roger is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France.  This is a special award given to the master craftsman in the whole of France in a field.  It is a big deal and one visit to one of his stores will give you an insight into what makes him so special.  It isn't just the quality of the chocolate, it is the innovation and artistry which he uses,  for example, every year he makes a massive sculpture of chocolate parts of which reside in his various shops.  This year the sculpture is of hippos, delicious hippos.  He experiments amazingly with chocolate so the chocolates we tried were basil and lemon, jasmin tea, lemongrass and lime and nougat and praline.  For me it was a close tie between the basil and lemon and the nougat and praline chocolates.  They were truly delicious and the smell in that shop was worth bottling.

Now I have long said that I don't understand what all the fuss is with macaroons.  I still hold that view about Australian macaroons but the ones I had today were a whole different story.  At Pierre Herme, a tiny store with a queue out the door and pastries that our guide described as horte couture, we had a salted caramel and a "mosaic" macaroon.  They were amazing.  The shell so crisp yet dissolving almost instantly on the tongue and the butter cream light yet so flavourful.  Our tour guide says they are the best in Paris - yes she rates them above Laduree, however given how much I enjoyed a real Parisian macaroon I might still have to try theirs.


Then at Gerard Mulpt I had an amazing pastry made up like a macaroon that had been sprinkled with pistachios, and filled with a thick vanilla cream and raspberries.  So good.


Other things we learnt.  The traditional curved croissant is made with margarine, if you want a proper butter one look for a straight one.  Bakers in Paris are the only profession legally not allowed to strike.  They also can't choose when to take holidays as the local government must always make sure there is at least one bakery operational in each neighbourhood.

I loved the tour, I thoroughly enjoyed everything we ate, thought our guide was great and learned some really interesting things.  S enjoyed it too, however he thought it was too expensive for what it was - he has worked out the price per food item, I think he is missing the point.

It has been another wonderful and tiring day in Paris, who knows what tomorrow will bring.

P.S. Please forgive any random formatting and/or spelling mistakes.  My travel computer and blogger do not like each other.