Author Archives: Miguel

Back in the USSR

The last line of our National Anthem asks the question: O say, does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Does it?

The time away has me wondering what freedom means to me, as if I were a 5th grader writing an essay on the matter.  Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on the economic and cultural differences, I’m conflicted about which system is better.  I kinda like the Bill of Rights and not paying 70% of my take-home in taxes.  But at the same time it was really nice to drive on roads that didn’t knock parts off of my car, <gasp> smoke a cigarette in a cafe or move on to the next shop because the owner of the one I went to had gone on vacation.  This is the key difference, I think.

We happened to be in Europe during the most popular month for the yearly vacation.  While it was a little frustrating to have to go another block to find a bodega for a bottle of wine, how profound is it that small business people can let their entire staffs leave town for 2-4 weeks?  That’s economic freedom!  It’s been a recurring theme in what I wrote over the course of this trip, but they (Europeans) just seem to have figured out something that we don’t get here in the US.

Place Clichy

On our last night in Europe we took a long stroll to do some shopping and have a final taste of cafe culture.  We ended up back in Pigalle.  This is “supposed” to be a red light district, but I think it’s more like a caricature of a red light district.  To start, there aren’t any “ladies”.  And the only traffic is from tourists in rented Benzes or in Norwegian Grey Line buses.  This is also where Moulin Rouge is at, as well as a few other similar places with floor shows.  We didn’t set out to come here, but it was a good place to end up because of the cafes and the show on the road.

Ahh, Mssr. Franks!

When I told my Mom where we would be traveling she remarked that it sounded like fun, but that we should be careful in Marseilles. Little did I know how prophetic her warning would be. It turns out that someone in Marseilles has had a grand old time on my dime. They went out to what appear to be a few bars on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, racking up around $700 bills each night. Then they apparently decided to bring the party home, so they stopped off at Carrefour (the European Walmart) and dropped another $2800 (I’m guessing a new plasma). It’s still not fully resolved, but my accounts have been closed and BofA has wiped the fraudulent transactions from my statement.

This whole situation has cast a little pall on our last few days in France, but today was really magnificent regardless. While we’d planned to rise early and see some smaller Chateaux before our 2:00 p.m. tour at Ch. Mouton Rothschild, 3 hours of late night phone calls with Bank of America and Visa killed that idea. We got started around 12:00 and found a delightful cafe in in the village of Bages. We ate a small, traditional lunch of Charcuterie (various sausages and cured meats) and a cheese plate (2 chevres and 2 cow’s milk). This set the tone for the short ride out to Mouton.

Once there we assembled in the visitor’s salon, went into a small theatre to view a welcome message by the Baroness and then started the tour proper. The facilities are amazing, and we learned a great deal about how one of the finest wines in the world is assembled. Like any prestige product, Mouton jumps through many self-imposed hoops out of adherence to tradition knowing that they can make up the expense at the back-end. We’ve seen the entire gamut of wine-making facilities in Napa and Sonoma, and none of them can hold a candle to what goes on here. After we’d toured the winery, they took us into the phase of the tour that neither of us appreciated very much: the Baron’s ram-art collection. It was a huge room full of jeweled and gilded objects d’art featuring male sheep. The old-French word for “ram” is Mouton. In modern French, it means “small hill.” Next, we were off to the tasting. Last year’s estate bottling is going for roughly $400/bottle, and they didn’t bring this out for us. While I would’ve appreciated a vertical tasting of ’61, ’82 and 2000, that wasn’t in the cards. What we did get was a preview (barrel tasting) of the ’09. It wasn’t ready to drink by any means, but it was a wonderful insight into what the wine will become in 10, 20 and 30 years. This is typically our favorite feature of tastings in Napa, so it was a unique treat to do this at Mouton.

Next up was Pichon Longueville. This property is awe-inspiring. They’re classified as 2nd growth from the 1855 Classification, and in my opinion it’s the top of the 2nd growth pile (the market tends to agree with me). This Chateau doesn’t have the glitz or name recognition of the first growths, so they must rely on their wine to speak for itself. To this end, everything in the winery is geared towards efficiency and consistency. We thoroughly enjoy this wine at home, and it was a wonderful treat to see where it’s born.

Next we took a short drive around Pauillac, if only to see Lafite, Latour and a few other places whose wares we covet and/or enjoy. The drive helped us decompress from the winery experiences, and soon enough it was time for dinner. Our hotel is rather like a country inn, albeit in an 18th centruy Chateau. The restaurant is run by Thierry Marx, and they’ve had 3 Michelin stars for a few years. If we hadn’t eaten at El Bulli a week earlier this meal would likely have been the high point of our trip.

A brief overview of our main plates:

  • Liz had the Canadian lobster, and it was cracked in the kitchen.  It was taken out of the steam basket just before it should have been, and then was placed in a bowl and sealed in a bag.  The steam expanded the air in the bag so that the bag formed a bubble and the lobster finished cooking as if in a pressure cooker, only from it’s own heat.  At this point, the bubble is brought to the table and “popped” in front of the diner. The meat was served with a cup of the water from the pan in which it was steamed.  It was suggested that a sip be taken and then a bite.  Remarkable preparation, presentation and taste; an amazing concept.
  • Mig had a fillet à la Bordelaise.  This was pan seared in the kitchen and then plated.  Next, a cup of smoldering vine cuttings was placed next to the meat and the whole package was wrapped up in a sheet of cellophane, tied off and then delivered to the table.  For an idea of what this looked like, imagine a gift basket with just a small fillet at the bottom of the basket.  Once at the table, the bag was opened and the smell of vine smoke wafted above our table.  The meat was absolutely fantastic, and again this was an amazing concept.

The rest of the meal was equally remarkable.  Unfortunately for them, the El Bulli experienced seriously compromised our enjoyment of this meal.  I would likely place it as my 3rd or 4th best meal ever, and I’m sure Liz would place it somewhere in the same neighborhood.

Driving to Bordeaux

We had an early morning today to get ready for the trek from Barcelona to Bordeaux. Just as we were getting the hang of the city without street signs (Barcelona), it was time to leave. On the way out we planned our route a little more carefully, and it paid off. First stop? Liquor store! We weren’t sure if we’d be able to get Havana club easily in Paris, so we stocked up before we left Spain. Next stop? Bocadillos for the road! A chorizo and brie sandwich just tastes better at 160 kph.

About halfway from Barcelona to Bordeaux is the tiny mountain country (principality) of Andorra. How often do you get a chance to go a few minutes out of your way to get another stamp in your passport? It took a little extra time and effort to get there, but that’s just what we did. The border station is pretty funny. There’s basically a roundabout ~1/4 mile in radius with a hut at one end. If you want your passport stamped, you pull aside, walk into the hut, then continue back the way you came.

And a word about the road. Last year the BBC program Top Gear did a segment on the best driving road in the world. They tried out various roads on the continent, most of which were in Southern Europe. Eventually they decided on a route from Davos, Switzerland, to Stelvio, Italy. I’ve only been on the segment of that road that has all the stop lights so I can’t make an honest judgment. But after what I saw today I think they may have gotten it all wrong. The road from Andorra to to Foix, France, is breathtaking. Again, I’m slightly disappointed to have been cooped up in a Audi A4, but more often than not I was in the fastest car in the pack and I was able to pass the “cloggies” at will. The Europeans have this driving game figured out. You want to drive fast? Have at it; but it’s going to cost you. Consider this: the road tolls from Barcelona to Bordeaux ran ~€40 and the tank of petrol was ~€70. That’s $156 at today’s exchange rate (1.4255:1). Certainly not an everyday event, but man it was fun!

Once we’d passed the Pyrenees, the road into Toulouse and ultimately to Bordeaux was completely uneventful. In fact there wasn’t really any excitement until we started seeing signs for Pauillac. Our hotel is in an old Chateau a few hundred yards from the the Port/Centre of Pauillac, in the village of Bages (as in Chateau Lynch-Bages). After we’d found the hotel, we rolled into the driveway and a porter met us with a smile on his face. When I stepped out of the car he greeted me with, “Good evening Mr. Franks.” I can only guess we were the last guests to arrive tonight, as I don’t look a thing like my latest press photo.

After we’d checked in, we jumped back into the car for a ride down to the docks for dinner. We decided on a local specialty: pizza. 😉 Keep in mind, this pizza had duck on it! Dinner completed, we came back to the hotel to head to bed. We’re hoping to have an early start for the Chateaux visits tomorrow.

Tortas in Spain

Leave it to Liz to find the only place in Barcelona that serves tortas.

The concierge at the hotel didn’t understand why we would want to come here, but like Cheech Marin in Europe we were having taco withdrawls.  The restaurant is in one of the neighborhoods that was having it’s festival during our visit.  This brought up Barcelon’s already hi-voltage atmosphere to a level somewhere between Mardi Gras in NoLa and Woodstock (’89…everyone was well-dressed).

Fat Americans

So we already suffered the indignity of the Renault Vel Satis.  I tried to get either an Audi or Mercedes for the Monaco leg of the trip, but Europcar wasn’t having it.  They said that most Americans like the bigger cars, and this was the biggest they had.  This exchange happened in Marseille, and I didn’t have the language skills to debate with them.

On the Barcelona to Bordeuax leg, I wasn’t going to have it again.  First they tried to strap us with the Renault Espace.  One look at it and I told them to it was too big (it seats 9, I think).  Then they tried to move us down to a Ford X-Mas.  Basically the same car, only made by Ford and about 2 cm shorter.  Maybe the Ford only seats 8.  They actually had to bring this one from the main lot away from the airport and we had to wait 30 minutes for it.

When we balked at this one they finally gave us an Audi A4 (for the same price).  They should know that I’m not your normal everyday fool!  😀

Barthelona

This is the view from the balcony at our hotel. We’re a block off the Plaça Catalunya, a key hub in the city. Barcelona has been really great so far: easy to get around, great food, great art history and the Olympics turned it into the Spanish San Francisco/Miami.

Also, I’ve never seen such amazing interior design. Most of the elements are familiar, but the Catalans have put their own spin on it. They’ve integrated the disparate cultures of the Med (Spanish, French, Italian/Roman, Greek, Turkish, Jewish/Israeli, Egyptian and Arabic) into a cohesive whole that just feels right.

The Oldest Restaurant In The World

We came to Europe because we won, in some cosmic lottery, a reservation at the best restaurant in the world. But since we were going to be here we also wanted to see what else they had to offer. Although we didn’t know about it before we came, our guidebook tipped us off to the presence of the oldest restaurant in the world here in Madrid. That’s nice and all, but what sold me were the facts the Hemingway hung out here and that their specialty is suckling pig. The place is called El Sobrino del Botin, it was founded in 1725 and it’s featured in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The history in the restaurant is palpable, and the menu is simple. The pretty much do one thing and they do it really well. We started with some Jerez (Tio Pepe) and gazpacho. I think this was the first time either of us had tried either and we’re now big fans of both. Next came the pig, and it was absolutely awesome. I haven’t had this dish since I was ~7 years old, and to be honest I can’t remember anything about that meal other than the cool wine bottles. This time, however, I get to record it for posterity! While they didn’t deposit a whole pig on the table, there was at least a pound of pork split into three large pieces from various parts of the beast. The meat itself was tender, juicy and had more pork flavor than I would’ve expected. The meat was accentuated by a simple au jus-like broth and the skin (crackling). Regarding crackling: think wafer thin chicharones that are as crispy as fresh tortilla chips. The whole package is delectable. I’m really going to seek this out in the US.

While everything was wonderful, I couldn’t help thinking that we just ate at the Madrileño House of Prime Rib. They do one thing, they do it well, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I kind of have to think that if we lived here we would only bring in guests from out of town. But as a traveler, it was exactly the sort of place I seek out. And as a bonus I got to walk in some more of Ernest’s footsteps!

La Palacete de Roses

This image was taken outside a cute little park in Madrid.  In the park is the Temple of Debod, a real Egyptian temple given to the Spanish government in thanks for helping to catalog the artifacts in the Nile valley above the Aswan dam before it was flooded. The temple is amazing in this setting, perched on the top of the highest hill in Madrid, adjacent to the Palacio Real (the Spanish White House).

The cafe was extremely chill, and it’s also where we first discovered the joys of the Cuba Libre (rum and coke) made with Havana Club. We both wanted something cold since it was so hot, but we also wanted to get our groove on. Beer didn’t sound nice at the time, and it didn’t seem like the right environment for Jerez. Then I remembered that we could get Cuban rum here legally! This instantly became the default drink for the remainder of the trip, even after we got back to France.

Las Ventas

One of Madrid’s allures to me was the Plaza de Toros Las Ventas. This is widely considered to be the most important bull ring in the world. It’s the equivalent of Yankee Stadium for baseball or Texas Stadium for Football (which oddly enough both had a swan song last season).

This photo was taken just before the start of the parade that kicks off the corrida. Note the position of the shadow at the center of the ring. The location of this shadow is what dictates the start time for the fight because the promoters make more money by selling more seats in the shade. Our corrida started at 19:00, and as you can see we were in the shade (sombra).

Unfortunately there were no Habanos to be had since the state-run tabacarias in Madrid have been closed all weekend because of the Fiesta la Paloma. It’s basically like all of the neighborhood fairs in San Francisco were held over one weekend. Most of the stores are closed, and many of the bars and restaurants have closed for the holiday. However, in our 2 days here we have been to enough cafes, cervecerias and restaurants to last us a month at home. More about a few of those tomorrow!