Monday, November 19, 2007
Travel always triggers a tripwire of startling experiences. When you're not lucky enough to be away, it's still great to be treated to the animated anecdotes of a passport-wielding friend. Recently, my friend Tabitha came back from a North American trek with presents and many a good food memory in tow. I was presented with choc-covered blueberries from Montreal and maple syrup (of course!) from Vancouver and a metaphorical taste of New York's idiosyncratic eateries.
My favourite Tabitha-NY anecdote was about Rice To Riches, a rice pudding point-of-call that sways customers with its blunt motto, Eat All You Want... You're Already Fat. They have wryly-named flavours such as "Sex Drugs and Rocky Road", "Fluent in French Toast", and "With Cherries 'Category 5' Caramel".
One food memory from my last overseas trip was dining in the complete dark at a Parisian restaurant called Dans Le Noir. You order in the lit bar area (you can opt for the 'surprise' menu if you're feeling real adventurous) and then a blind waiter leads you past two heavy curtains to your table in the blacked out restaurant. Even though I was guided by someone who totally knew their way around, I remember being jolted by not being able to see - my footsteps were really unsure and searching of the ground the entire time; I kept thinking that I was always one mis-step away from tumbling down a flight of stairs. (Ridiculous, I know.)
Eating something you can not see at all is - unsurprisingly - a disconcerting experience. It doesn't work so well when you have a salad entree (it's hard to toss the dressing through your plate) but you do learn some tricks - such as how to pour yourself a cup of water when you have no visual cue for when to stop the flow (you stick a finger over the top of your glass so you'll know when the glass is full). Sure, it's fun too - it's a licence to embrace your inner-kid and I admit to dabbing my fingers through my ice cream cone dessert to taste it (you can go the full slob when your neighbour diners can't even see you, or involuntarily become a mess without helpful lighting cues to rely on - but I didn't look too much of a disaster zone when I walked out, I swear).
When one sense is (temporarily) cut off, of course, the remaining ones sharpen - your taste has an extra edge (after all, it's your last defence in sleuthing out what you're eating) and that's part of the point of the restaurant. (The Dans Le Noir concept was also partly-meant to address the low employment figures for blind people as well, by giving visually impaired people jobs.)
Now being blind-for-a-dinner is also odd when you start chatting to your table neighbours - I struck up a conversation with some locals who later "thanked" me for AC/DC upon learning I was from Australia (it feels a l'il odd to be "personally responsible" for a band who raged and reigned long before I was born). Throughout our entire chat, I had this imagined idea of what these people sitting near me looked like - and all my mental appearance-casting turned out to be totally wrong when I saw them in proper light outside. Your senses can certainly play tricks on you.
Another Paris memory was eating a bright-coloured macaron in Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre, thanks to my travel-mate Eileen. I was thinking about that again recently when I came across an article in The Chicago Sun-Times about macarons. The story focused on Ladurée, a French macaron-mecca where you can get orange saffron, java pepper, grenadine, salty butter caramel, apricot ginger, champagne, glacial mint and Lily-of-the-Valley varieties.
"At Charlie Trotter's spectacular 20th anniversary dinner last month, uber-Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé contributed golden-hued macarons made from aged balsamic vinegar alongside dark ones made from black truffles."
I love how high-end a simple sweet can become, and how there's this momentum of excitement and suspense about which new macaon flavours will be unveiled, on par with the curiosity and must-know wonder about coming catwalk trends.
The flavour-du-jour apparently is "Ruby Kiss" a chocolate, berry and spice-flecked macaron.
Another semi-food-related travel memory - visiting one of the biggest and fanciest vegetable gardens ever at the Château de Villandry, which boasts 1500 lime trees and 250,000 flowers and vegies. Everything is weeded by hand (hopefully not just one poor overtaxed hand), and the vegies are sold at markets.
It does make your humble vegie patch look a tad undersized in comparison.
The gardens have a touch of royal history about them but their current incarnation is thanks to Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor who made Villandry his home in 1906 (his family squirreled every single of their pennies into it). The military doctor transformed part of the estate to house patients during World War II, using his vegetable garden to feed them and the herb garden for medicinal treatments. The grounds are still run today by his grandson, Henri Carvallo (who apparently is quite a mean chess player too). Any garden that can make an ordinary cabbage look kinda wistful and romantic has to be impressive.