Friday, May 22, 2015

Water Meets Rock in Brittany

Brittany: a rocky, sea-swept landscape of villages large and small with a rich maritime culture, fortifications of impenetrable granite, and centuries of extreme weather and tides.
Fishing is a primary occupation, from lone fishing boats to the mass production of oyster farms. Cod, shrimp, lobster, oysters, scallops are usually on the dinner menu.
Tourism runs a close second, especially from late spring to early fall, drawing thousands of French, a scattering of Germans and British, and the occasional American. Hiking trails are abundant along the coasts and across the headlands; bike rentals, too.
In spring, when we visited Brittany, crowds were thinner than in summer (though still shoulder-to-shoulder at St. Malo and Mont St. Michel) and temperatures much cooler, Along the coast, the wind could blow you over!
The best part about spring: wildflowers bloomed along every pathway and in every crack in the rocks.
Despite the astounding natural beauty of the surroundings, the rocky shores combined with extreme weather have accounted for thousands of shipwrecks and tragedies at sea.
Homes of pink granite blocks are built to withstand centuries of violent winds and storms--and many of them date from the 17th to 19th centuries. (Later retrofitted with water and electricity, of course.)
The same rock, on the backs of slaves, was shaped into ramparts and towers that have protected shores from invaders and endured centuries of cannonballs and weather.
Equally important was the right to worship in the chapels and cathedrals protected by those fortifications; and the compulsion to hide behind those same walls when other religions came knocking.
The French love to hide behind their walls; or, if rock is not readily available, tall (just above eye level) yet attractive hedges. They surround almost every house, estate, field, walkway, lane.
Extreme tides, second only to those of Canada's east coast, require innovative engineering to keep maritime systems operating--supports bolted to the sides of boats to keep them upright during low tide, and long docks extending way out into deep water.
The towns close up tight early in the evening--quiet and deserted. Act fast to get into a restaurant (reservations help too; they are often full). Oysters and other seafood are on every menu--Pope enjoyed quite a few huitres. I also relied largely on fish, though I occasionally scored a salad or vegetables. At the many creperies, I enjoyed mushrooms and cream or egg and cheese wrapped in galettes (buckwheat savory crepes), and--on a delicious final note--chocolate, chestnut, or caramel dessert crepes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Call 999! Let's Test the Emergency Services!

What's black and white, and gray all over? Why, it's Amber lying in a Breton hospital!
At one time, we thought we would stay in France for a year. You all know what happened to that plan! However, since we are here, we are getting a taste of what it could be like. At this time, we are spending a week on the north coast of Brittany (Bretagne), a beautiful windswept coastline with granite cliffs, medieval fortresses (below), dozens of hiking trails, hearty Breton home cooking, plenty of supermarkets (unlike Dordogne, where we could never find one), and hospitals.
Pope is aching to literally "test the waters" here--i.e., he wants to go sailing. The sea and the multitude of sailboats are calling out to him to try his hand at plying Bretagne's rocky coast in a small bateau. The powerful attraction reminds me of the legendary sirens who entice unwary sailors to wreck their boats on the rocks. We are trying to sign on to a boat tour--one facet of their highly developed maritime system--though the weather has not cooperated so far.
Meanwhile, we explored the hiking trails--beautiful views, nicely kept trails, good signage, and lots of hikers, even on days when the wind threatens to blow you over! The coast of Brittany is a walker's paradise.
We tested the transportation system--rental cars, taxis, local city buses and long-distance coaches, such as to Mont St. Michel (below). We don't understand many of the road signs, but the directional signs are very helpful.
Best of all, we have sampled the regional cuisine, visiting a variety of restaurants and finding them pleasing. (See previous blog post). Pope sampled oysters in every village. We enjoyed three excellent meals in the walled fortress town of St. Malo--Autour du Buerre (the butter place); Tourne-Pierre (the creperie named for a bird); and Brasserie Armoricaine (traditional French).
Why not go for a fourth? L'Absinthe was recommended by TripAdvisor, our hotel keeper, and Donna in my French class back home. Three great reviews!

The best restaurants are in the habit of feeding diners little complimentary tidbits before the meal. Of course I am very careful to check the ingredients because of my food sensitivities.
At Autour du Buerre (above), it was crayfish (on my banned list!), homemade breadsticks, and radishes (delicious)--and of course the mounds of butter. Lovely presentation. At L'Absinthe, it was a little bowl of curry containing three types of fish. Of course, I asked about the contents, and heard the words for pollock (ok with me) and salmon (mild sensitivity but nothing serious). I missed the third name; I'll never know what it was. However, I knew that it was not the words for shrimp, crayfish, or lobster, the only seafoods I am serious about avoiding. Nonetheless, I tried only one bite and passed the rest to Pope.

I happily dug into my eggplant appetizer and anticipated my main course with relish. And then, to my surprise and horror, my throat began to constrict! It swelled. And then it went numb; I could not swallow. I felt hot and sweaty, then cold, and began to shake. Feeling faint, I left the table and headed for the door, getting as far as a bench where I laid down to let my blood pressure normalize. (Whether the cold sweat and the fainting spell were an allergic reaction or just panic, I'll never know.)

That's when I decided to test the French emergency medical system. You can't know what it's like to live in a place until you know if you can get to the hospital--or the church--on time!

Short version of what happened after that: A waitress who spoke good English called 999; a  mini ambulance twisted its way through the narrow lanes of the medieval fortified village; one of the EMTs spoke fair English and got the facts straight; and a doctor in the emergency room at St. Malo Hospital spoke a little English. I got an IV through the wrist containing antihistamine and cortisone--I think! I'll never know for sure.
And then  it was over. No paperwork was exchanged, no signatures, no bill, no payment. The nurse even called a taxi for us!  (Though they did ask for my home address; maybe an invoice will wend its way to the USA via air mail.) All very calm and informal. By the time we left, I could swallow, nothing more serious had happened, and there were no clear answers.

A good system? Responsive emergency services, even in the middle of historic old towns. Caring and friendly people. A bit casual--where are the records, the diagnosis, the follow-up, the reassurances? And could it really be free emergency care??? Perhaps I'll never know.

Pope, on the other hand, thought the overall experiment (living in France) came up short. In several instances we have noticed (and we had been cautioned) that French business owners are adamant about making sure you pay every penny you could possibly owe; for example, every tea bag or cup of coffee at a hotel. At the restaurant, while waiting for the ambulance, Pope asked to pay the bill for our drinks and appetizers. They were busy, and he was shooed aside.

But then came crunch time. When he tried to follow me and the EMTs out the door, his path was blocked, and the proprietors quickly came up with l'addition. The ambulance was kept waiting until they ran his credit card and he signed the slip!

Well, at least the food was good!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Redneck Gourmands (Or, It's All in the Butter)

You've seen those crazy food writers on TV who eat their way around the globe. True gourmands (definition: fond of eating, often indiscriminately and to excess), licking their lips over cockroaches, anteater tongue, and anchovy cake. Usually plump.

We're not like that. We're the redneck variety: seeking out the cheap lunch counter, picnicking on plain bread and cheese, eating bran flakes in our hotel room. In France, however, I intended to splurge on good food and wine.

At first, we were very disappointed! When I left home, I could only pack loose, unfashionable jeans and dress trousers because of the weight I had gained while nursing a broken foot. Here, the fat came off quickly as we skipped meal after meal and failed to find restaurants we liked. The food was mediocre, and vegetables were scarce. At one meal, Pope's pork dinner was served with green beans, but when I ordered "vegetables" ("des legumes"), I got only potatoes and rice! I lived on bread and cheese, while Pope's face lil up every time he saw the golden arches.
As we moved north, though, our diet improved as the restaurants became more promising. Once again, I am struggling with my zippers (mostly because of the butter; see below). Pope discovered Brittany oysters, and by adding seafood to my diet, I enjoyed some very satisfactory meals. Below is a photo essay of food we really liked--and some dishes that were just plain beautiful!
Oysters fresh from the sea at Cancale, eastern edge of Brittany; "tastings" (degustation) of the day's catch available right at the end of the dock. We watched as boxes of seafood were lifted out of the boats by a small crane at high tide.
Creamy goat cheese--a specialty in Dordoge--baked with eggplant and carmelized onion. Yum!
 "Crudites"--simple raw vegetables with light vinagrette, but a very welcome sight after weeks of menus with very little besides duck, duck duck!
Appetizer on the English-speaking island of Jersey, just off the coast of Normandy: very fresh canchre crab, probably caught the same day. Served with ripe, luscious, succulent melon and strawberries--nothing like that stuff you get in supermarkets!
It's all in the presentation! The only really good meal we had in the Dordogne region was served on an outdoor terrace laced with purple wisteria, on the bank of the Vezere River--a gorgeous spot and gorgeous food: Pope's canard (duck) with foie gras and my river trout with egg custard.

Thick steaks of John Dory, a local fish, on a bed of zuchini and broccoli--finally, vegetables so welcome to my taste buds! Served with local muscadet wine, which is dry, not sweet. This was our most expensive meal so far, in the 100-dollar range, and the prices are only going to go up from here!

Confession time! That 100-dollar meal was at a goumet restaurant in Saint Malo. It came with a complimentary appetizer of tiny shrimp served with fresh radishes. Then, they brought a basket of bread and this platter of.....BUTTER! Yes, each of these is a different flavor, including lemon, vanilla, herb, caraway, pimento, and anchovy butters. Delicious. I confess, I stuffed myself as if I didn't know where my next plate of butter would come from! 
Finishing touches: the desserts have consistently been more rewarding than the meals, and they are continuing to please. I am a creme caramel connoisseur, and the best I have ever had was in a small country restaurant in a tiny hamlet in Dordogne that otherwise served mostly duck. Several versions of panna cotta, including one with passion fruit, have been delicious. Above, creme brulee as eye candy; here, a plum cake in Brittany called Far Breton.  I can feel the pounds packing on!