For the past five weeks, I've been meaning to tell you about the Czech Republic. Meaning to upload my pictures, come up with a recipe that reflects my time there and post it. But now I'm in Nice on the Cote d'Azur, and it's really lovely too - obviously. How could southern France not be lovely?
It's not that I didn't love Prague and the other cities I visited: in fact, I had perhaps the best Indian curry ever, and definitely the best chocolate ice cream ever, and I saved the addresses of the places that supply these two mind-blowingly good edibles. We also found a good vegetarian restaurant on the banks of the river in Czesky Krumlov, and I'll talk about that too. It's a great relief to find a vegetarian restaurant when you're traveling in eastern Europe. But France always seems to come first with me.
France has a very special place in my heart. It's my 5th time here, and it's always magical. Two summers ago, we stayed overnight in Paris, on our way to Antibes by train. We climbed into bed at about 11:30, full of sleep, but realized we'd never be able to drift off with a block party happening on the street below, the DJ blasting music that carried up to the top floor of our petit hotel. My usually dance-phobic husband decided that if we couldn't beat 'em, we'd join 'em. We put our glad rags back on and went down to dance until 2am. As you can see, it was worth it.
We arrived in Nice yesterday evening, and after lying on the bed in a daze for a while, we picked ourselves up and walked into the old town for dinner.
After picking a random but tasty-looking outdoor cafe, and being served khir as soon as we sat down, I wondered "why can't the rest of the world be like France?" "I don't know" sighed Colm. Everything made so much sense: the khir was cool and refreshing after walking through tiny cobbled streets in warm, moist air and sandals. The portion sizes were perfect, leaving room to comfortably have dessert. The baguette didn't come with butter, so you just tasted the bread, using it to sop up the sauce that sits on your plate when you're done. French food really gets the concept of quality over quantity. It keeps things simple and lets the ingredients speak for themselves.
I took a holiday from vegetarianism and ordered mussels in white wine and cream with a side of haricot vert. The green beans came cooked in generous amounts of butter and garlic, and the mussels left you with lots of liquid for bread dipping. I watched happily as Colm sank into 'I'm in France' mode, ordering a carafe of rose wine and later asking for "une desert, si vous plait". We each had one and picked at them lazily. Then we ordered an espresso but their machine was broken, so they brought us Limoncello. Twist my arm! A street guitarist came around, playing the Gypsy Kings. I talked with him in a mix of Spanish, French and Italian that I didn't understand very well. Eventually we paid (not much more than the cost of a curry in Leamington) and wandered deeper into Nice's old town. We stopped and watched some capoeira dancers do back-flips, marveling at their unreal muscle definition. Not bad for a Sunday night.
An Englishwoman once said to me, "Have you been to Italy? No? Oh god, you have to go! I'd give up the rest of Europe and just take Italy!" Maybe Italy is even more beautiful and sensuous and delicious, but for now, my love affair with France continues.
I'm not a coffee drinker, but in France, I drink espresso shots. I have them with a pastry in the morning. It's the best thing in the world. And every day, you get to try a new pastry - talk about a good reason to get out of bed! There were five good bakeries within a five minute walk from the hotel (how do I love thee, let me count the ways!). Sometimes, lunch was gelato, because it was just that hot. Or 'bio' (organic) cherries from the market, eaten while window shopping, pits spit into the gutters when no one was looking. Or baguette with cheese back at the apartment after my midday two-minute cold shower.
On Saturday, a friend took us on a bus trip East along the coast. We went through two tunnels, then got off at the second stop after that (sorry, I don't remember the name!). From here, we walked downhill until we came to a path to the beach (Plage Maia, or Maya, or Mala, I think...). It's a beach you can't drive to, so even on a Saturday in July, it wasn't overly crowded. Colm and I had our first 'swim in the sea' in 4 1/2 years of being together. I hope we don't go that long without swimming in the sea together again. We shared a pair of goggles and looked at the not-so-colourful fish, dark green grasses and gnarled rocks. Not quite the Caribbean, but still, the water was warm and he was there. After the swim, our friend Sergei (a Russian with the temperament of a Spaniard) took us to a paved path (called, I believe, Sentier du Littoral, from my Google map searching) that we hiked on until we ran into a big port on the west side of Monaco. By this time, we were very warm, sun-baked and ready for lunch or at least a cold beer. We climbed (and climbed and climbed) back up to the main road, caught the bus and got off at Villefranche Sur Mer. Almost every restaurant was closed for the afternoon and I was feeling desperate, but we found a spot with good salads. I was sticky with dried salt water and sweat, had on my blue straw cowboy hat, lace-backed shirt, and everything was right with the world. Bumble bees bobbed along through the air, a gentle breeze blew, and we watched as a wedding procession trundled slowly by our table. We ate salad Nicoise, penne arrabiata and drank cold beers. It was heaven. I highly recommend working up an appetite in this way.
This is starting to run on a bit, so let's get to the recipe. I love having a kitchen when I travel. I want to try the things I see in markets that may not travel back with me so well. We stayed in the Citea apartments, thank god. Air conditioning, wireless, and a teeny two burner stove. So my summer veggies from the Cours Selaya market didn't go to waste.
I made a vegetarian pasta dish twice that week that went something like this:
Summer Vegetable Pasta with Red Wine Tomato Sauce
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil (flavoured with garlic or rosemary is nice)
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 celery rib, diced (optional)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
generous splash or two of red wine (white wine is fine too)
2 - 3 large tomatoes (about 3/4 pound or a bit more), ripened locally, sliced in half or quarters (stems cut out)
a bay leaf if you have it
1 courgette (zucchini), sliced into half moon shapes
1 eggplant, cubed
1 teaspoon sugar if you have it
fresh basil and parsley, maybe oregano too
chunky sea salt to taste (flavoured sea salt is a popular market item)
Note: If you're at home with your oven, you can roast the cubed eggplant (aubergine) on 400F or 180C until it's nice and soft, then toss it in towards the end to give it a few minutes to soak up the other flavours.
Languidly cook this, wherever you are, with some windows or a door open and the air conditioning off:
Heat oil and butter in a skillet. Add garlic, onion and celery and cook until onion and celery are translucent, soft and sweet. Add the fennel seed and stir briefly. Add the red wine, tomatoes with their juice, chopped vegetables, bay leaf, a bit of pepper and salt. Smash the tomatoes with your spoon to release the juice, then let that simmer with the wine to reduce into a sweet, tangy sauce. The vegetables will soften and cook at the same time (see note about roasting aubergine/eggplant). Taste as you go and adjust salt, pepper, etc. When the vegetables are cooked and you're happy with the thickness of the tomato/wine 'sauce', then toss the fresh herbs in and stir them around. Remove from the heat and mix with fresh cooked pasta. We had this with a baguette and some cheese (he likes Comte, I like most types of Goat's cheese); and other nights, it was salad with endive, avocado, rocket/arugula, other greens, fresh herbs, lemon juice, the herbed olive oil and maybe some nuts and dried fruits.