I’ll take some Dijon, Please

Years ago, there was a popular commercial on television. Two limousines are stopped at an intersection. The windows roll down and one obviously rich gentleman asks the other, “Do you have any Grey Poupon?” The occupant nods and presents a jar of  Dijon mustard.

Every view is a beautiful one

I have always equated Dijon with that spicy golden spread and really nothing else. We just got back from a visit to Dijon, France and it is so much more. As we walked along its meandering cobblestoned streets, we discovered a city famous for its wines, cuisine, and history. In fact, Dijon is the capital of the Burgundy wine region, although Beaune (just down the road) is perhaps a better bet if you’re serious about hunting the grape. The city is bursting with ancient half-timbered buildings that look straight out of your average French fairy tale. And the colorful tilework on many of the roofs is gorgeous.

Notre Dame

Dijon is very compact and foot friendly and the best place to start your visit is at the Dijon Tourist Office at 11 Rue des Forges. They have a nifty little guide called The Owl’s Trail that directs you on a self-guided tour of the city. The Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon is the city’s symbol or mascot. Owls are everywhere in the form of magnets, tea towels, or little porcelain figures. But the most important one is the weathered, stone carving on a corner of the cathedral on Rue de la Chouette, (appropriately named Owl Street). Legend is if you touch the figure with your left hand, and make a wish, it should come true. The jury is still out on that since I have not won the lottery (yet). The guide book, along with a trail of small owl-embellished brass plates in the sidewalk, points the way. This is an excellent way to see all the pertinent sites in the city and we will cover just a few of our favorites.

Les Halles is the covered market in Dijon. The imposing ironwork structure is lovely and very reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Gustave Eiffel (who was originally from Dijon) designed the building. We’ve been to many covered or indoor markets in various locations, but this was one of the best. The selections of meat, fish, produce, cheese–oh, that glorious cheese!–and baked goods were some of the finest we had ever seen. Not only did the quality look fantastic, but the presentation was as much of a feast for the eyes as it was for the palate. The market is held on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday each week. We were there on a Saturday and the market extends way beyond the interior of this beautiful edifice and into the surrounding streets. Vendors selling all types of vintage to modern items occupied stalls for a couple of blocks in every direction. Haggling is encouraged and we bargained and purchased a vintage desk calendar with a bronze figure of a gentleman playing a game of Petanque, sometimes called Boules in Paris.

Place Francois Rude
A fine day to stomp some grapes

Place Francois Rude
Smack dab in the middle of the old part of the city is a charming square. It is named after the French sculptor Francois Rude who was born in Dijon. Rude is famous for his sculptural frieze La Marseillaise emblazoned on the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. The plaza comes complete with a vintage carousel, a wonderful fountain adorned with a sculpture of a well-muscled young man stomping wine grapes, and charming half-timbered buildings. It is the perfect place to sit at a cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee as you watch some of the local parents treating their children to a ride on the antique merry-go-round.

Place de la Liberation
In the center of Dijon sits the impressive Place de la Liberation. This semi-circle square is anchored on one side by the palace of the Dukes of Burgundy and there are fountains of water that seem to shoot up randomly from the ground. It is a pedestrian-only area, and another great place and stop at any of the numerous cafes to rest your feet after a long day of walking. We were lucky to be there on a beautiful sunny day, drinking a glass of wine and watching the children and some of the local dogs romping in the fountains.

Notre-Dame Dijon

Notre Dame interior

The imposing Roman Catholic Church of Notre-Dame was built in the 13th Century. The exterior has 51 gargoyles gracing its facade. At the top of the exterior is a clock called the Jacquemart. It has four metal automatons. Two of them, called Jacquemart and Jacqueline, sound the hours by striking a large bell with a hammer. The other two, their children, Jacquelinet and Jacquelinette, strike the quarter hours, each on a smaller bell. Inside the church, the stained glass casts a beautiful shimmering light through lovely gothic arches. And the impressive organ

Cathedrale Saint-Benigne

loft has a gorgeous tapestry complementing the massive bank of organ pipes that are a work of art in their own right.

To cap it all off, we had a view from the window of our small apartment that was really spectacular. There is so much more to Dijon than just mustard and more than I have room for here. Why don’t you make a visit to this wonderful and often overlooked city for yourself!

Troc and Titi and Cheese, Oh My!

There are many benefits to living overseas—like the opportunity to hunt for great antique or second-hand items that we’d never find back in America. Or we can go shopping in a large grocery store in say, France, and it’s filled with French food! Yes, retail therapy is a little different over here. Flea Markets abound with everything, from stuff that looks like it fell off of the back of a delivery truck to beautiful antiques. We woke up on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago and felt the thrill of the hunt come upon us. We took the back seats out of our trusty Honda Odyssey van (just in case) and the we were off.

We had heard about two secondhand stores near Metz that we wanted to explore. They were only a little over 2 hours away and it would be an easy day trip. Plus, our favorite French hypermarket, Auchan was only about 30 minutes away from our planned stops. So the die was cast—ROAD TRIP!

Aladdin’s Cave?

Our first stop was “Troc” in Forbach, France. Troc is a large consignment store filled with treasures (and some trash). Mid-century modern chairs sit next to Edwardian marble-topped sideboards, which stand beside

I love this stuff

Bavarian farmhouse tables. The place is massive. And it’s not just filled with furniture, but also artwork, china, crystal, lamps, chandeliers, and tons more. But there’s also the junk. They have the inevitable ceramic clowns and various items from the 60s or 70s that make you shake your head and wonder what possessed someone to buy this on its first go-round. We found ourselves going down aisle after aisle of furniture and other treasures. They had a fairly large selection of shiny lacquered Italian inlaid wood furniture. These pieces when new are rather expensive, but here at Troc their prices were just a shadow of their former selves.

A few dainty morsels

I found myself attracted to the vintage dishes from the town of Obernai in Alsace. They bore the scars of many a meal, with the odd chip or discoloration here and there. But to me, this was just evidence of a very happy life, and now I can display them with all their history. I thought they would look splendid hanging in a grouping on a wall. The plates were cheerful and full of colorful scenes of Alsatian village life. Obernai pottery is quite expensive when new and a bit too rich for my blood. But these were going for a paltry 1 Euro apiece for the well-worn and well-loved dishes. I splurged on a large presentation platter that was newer and in perfect condition for 5 Euros. By the time I was done, I had spent 14 Euros for the lot. I couldn’t even purchase a new saucer for that price. I left Troc a very happy girl.

It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but..

Next on our itinerary was Titi International. Okay, everyone can stop making those little snickering noises now. I think the name is a bit silly as well, but the contents of this place are anything but. The prices seemed a bit higher than Troc, but the quality was a bit higher too. The furniture was gorgeous! They had a number of beautiful vintage pieces that I would have been happy to take home immediately. Even the smaller home décor and china seemed nicer. I’m still kicking myself for not purchasing the vintage transferware tea set from Maastricht in the Netherlands. Like Troc, Titi is basically a large warehouse filled various kinds of stock in widely varying conditions. Unbelievable as it sounds, we walked out

A Dutch treat

without purchasing anything, but  it’s not likely that we’ll get away unscathed on our next visit. This trip was sort of our maiden voyage, and we decided that we need to come back once every three months or so and check out their inventory. Of course, the seats in the van will stay home, just in case!

Poking around in second-hand shops is hungry work! So after rummaging through all kinds of treasures, we were off to what is to us, the highest expression of the French supermarket, Auchan! There are certain stores in

Where to start?

France that earn the title of hypermart and all of them are great. Names like Cora, Leclerc, Intermarché, and Carrefour are certain to make our mouths water. Picture the finest gourmet shop you have ever seen (or even imagined), then expand it to the size of a large Costco. Throw in a few dry goods for variety and you have a French hypermarket. The French have a very well-deserved reputation for fine cuisine and it all starts with the very best ingredients. The typical hypermarket is filled with glorious French produce, wine, meats, cheeses, fresh seafood, and of course, a huge variety of baked goods. We have visited many of them, but Auchan (and especially the one in Semécourt, near Metz) gets our vote for the best selection and best quality. It’s always a major hub of activity and we start to drool whenever we get within a kilometer.

Inside the building is a mini-mall of smaller interior shops, eateries, and even a carousel for the kids. But the main event is the big store itself. This company is way ahead of the technology curve with something they call, “Rapid Auchan.” As customers come in, they can choose to get their own scan device that fits in a holder in their shopping cart. They self-scan their items as they go about their shopping. They go through a special line, pay for their purchases, and out the door they go. It’s a pretty cool system and certainly shortens wait times in the lines. Auchan embraces this technology as a way to free up their employees to offer one-on-one customer service throughout the store.

And it’s all good…

To us, Auchan seems like Disneyland for foodies. The cheese aisle—which seems to go on forever—always takes our breath away. The fishmonger calls out the specials of the day as if she were in an open-air market in an Atlantic port. We saw some prawns that looked (I swear, I’m not making this up!) to be about the size of a small poodle. There were several aisles of high-quality French wines, some at rock-bottom prices. The meats, patés, breads—Oh, The breads! Bread is like a religion in France. A fresh loaf is purchased every day in any self-respecting French household. And their bread is best served up with some glorious, creamy, butter from Brittany. I really like butter and to me, pretty much any butter is good butter. But the creamy product of Brittany is a cut above. It’s really special.

The staff of life

Even their “generic” aisle at Auchan is something to behold. Breads, cereals, canned goods, and candies all bearing plain generic labels with super low prices are equal if not better in quality to many of the name-brand products we’re used to in the States.

We rolled our cart to our waiting van and carefully packed out treasures into a large cooler for the trip back to Germany. Of course, a few “small” items were set aside to fuel the car ride home. I mean, after an exhausting day like that, you’ve got to keep up your strength!

Automat Memories and One Very Tasty Meal

Good things await inside.

Automat. The word conjures up memories of old movies from the 40s where frugal New Yorkers on their lunch breaks could grab a bite to eat. It was the original fast food. The hungry secretary or executive-in-training would pop into the Automat to find rows of little glass-fronted doors, each with a coin slot. Behind the doors were little cubbies holding anything a famished person could want—sandwiches, soups, pie—all awaiting the drop of a coin to release them from captivity.

This little blast from the past was brought forward to the present day for me last weekend. We were invited to have lunch in a small town in Alsace, France by Gudrun, one of our German neighbors who lives down the street. She is a marvel. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and explores the world fearlessly. Her tales of travel, food, and people she has met along the way have enthralled and delighted us. We want to be just like Gudrun when we grow up. So when she asked if we would like to join her for lunch in Alsace along with her daughter Katarina, who was taking a holiday break from her Master’s Program, we heartily answered, “Yes!”

A meal to savor

Being able to go to places like France in a matter of a couple of hours is one of the aspects of living overseas that we love. So lunch in Alsace it was—and what a lunch! We arrived in the small village of Roppenheim at a quaint restaurant named Auberge à l’Agneau. The half-timbered building welcomed us with flower boxes overflowing with pink and red geraniums. The interior was the model of cozy comfort that decorators can only imitate. Its dark wood paneling and brightly painted yellow walls were adorned with vintage farm tools, enameled pots, and grapes hanging from the weathered beams. This, folks, was the real thing, and we prepared ourselves for a special meal.

Heaven on a plate

We were not disappointed. Our lunch began with a small tasting-sized bowl of cream of mussel soup to whet our appetites.  We opted for the bean soup for our starter with thick slabs of crusty bread. Our main course was tournedos of beef in a rich, savory sauce with Roquefort cheese crumbled over the top. This was served with the sweetest carrots I have ever eaten and lightly fried patties of grated zucchini. A large communal dish of French fries was served up, as well as a garden-fresh salad. The meal was one of the best we’ve eaten in a very long time. We finished up with espresso and dessert. I had the homemade chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Bill had the sour cherry ice cream served with a vanilla cream sauce and whole marinated cherries. Truly a wonderful lunch.

roppenheim-8aWe went for a small walk through the tiny village after our feast and something caught our eye from across the street. It was a farmer’s version of an automat. It stood beneath a sort of lean-to structure and had a series of little glass doors with signs boasting that their “ATM farm products” were available 24/7! Sure enough, we saw farm fresh eggs, bunches of newly picked garlic, bags of onions, potatoes, bottles of hand pressed canola oil, and more. The prices were handwritten on each selection with a small number to identify them. Pop your coins in the slot, key in the number on the central keypad and presto! the door opens and the item is yours. But instead of the piece of pie or sandwich of yesteryear, it was fresh produce to fix dinner with.

New potatoes

Europe has not quite been overrun by the retail 24/7 phenomenon, and we like it that way. Stores are closed on Sundays, but we can feel the slow infiltration of longer opening hours. Yes, it makes life a bit more convenient, but I hate to see everything being turned into an all day, all night, everyday shopper’s wonderland. This produce automat seems the perfect compromise. For a minute, I felt like I did when I was a very little girl on a trip back east when my parents took me to one of the last surviving automats for lunch. It made an impression on me and for a moment, I was transported back to the time I gazed up transfixed at all those little glass doors with wonderful surprises behind each one.

“Plan B” Travel and Really, Really Good Chocolate!

It’s safe to say that Bill and I LOVE chocolate! We’ll admit it, we’re chocolate snobs, although sometimes it’s hard to beat the perfection of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Living overseas has allowed us to try some of the best that Europe has to offer. Up until now, Belgium reigned supreme when it came to the smack-down competition for the best confections. But–we might have a new champion!

Heaven waits within.

We just returned from a glorious three days in Troyes, France. We had planned on going to Lille, France for the annual flea market. This historic event runs for 33-hours straight and has taken place each year for the last couple of centuries (except during wartime). It’s a lollapalooza spanning the city’s streets with millions of visitors in attendance each year, except this one. Unfortunately, the city mayor canceled this year’s bacchanalia of bric-a-brac due to security concerns.

Where to begin?

Disappointed–but not dejected–we came up with a Plan B; Troyes. We will go into much greater detail in a later post about this wonderful city. But remember, I started with the subject of chocolate and that is our topic for today’s dispatch.

We have a knack for spotting chocolate shops wherever we go and this time was no different. We seem to have an inner GPS pegged on “search for chocolate” and our internal compasses did not fail us. The shop was called “Pascal-Caffet” and they sold some of the most delicious artisan chocolates we had ever tasted. They utilize only the finest chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Madagascar, and many other exotic locales for their sweets.

The lovely lady behind the counter greeted us in English and began singing her siren song. “Would Monsieur or Madame like a sample?” She slid the clear acrylic cover to the side and the luscious aroma of the confections hit us like chocolate pheromones. Her delicate gloved hand searched for just the right arrow that she knew would pierce any rational thought. “Does Monsieur or Madame like pistachio?” By this time a tiny trickle of drool was starting from the corner of my mouth. Grasping for words, all we could manage was an uncontrollable nodding of our heads. But inside we were screaming, “Yes! Yes! For God’s sake YES! Pistachio!!”

You must try one of these.

We were done for. She plopped the petite indulgences into our eager little palms and we popped them into our mouths. What happened next? It’s difficult to say since we were enraptured by one of the most delicious flavors we had ever experienced. “First you taste zee Venezuelan chocolate, zen, the pistache, zen you finish with zee chocolate last. Non?” We could hear her lilting French accent off in the distance, but the world melted away like the chocolate on our tongues. Forget Godiva, or Dutch, German, Swiss, or Belgian chocolate. This was a mind-blowing religious experience! I almost felt like I needed a cigarette. We left with a small bag of about 100 grams which was about 8 pieces for roughly 10 Euros (or $11.50) and worth every Euro cent.

We asked about their operating hours since we knew we’d make at least one more visit to buy a few treats for the road. We needed to get them while still in town. They have shops in France, Italy, the UK, and Japan and none of them ship outside those countries. Due to possible delivery delays or less than optimal temperatures while in transit, they cannot guarantee freshness on arrival. So being able to purchase a few more grams before our drive home was imperative. Needless to say, the chocolates never made it all the way back.

And it’s more than just chocolates…

Here is the link for the UK site in English. Even though you can only live vicariously, it’s worth a look to see what these tasty morsels look like. http://www.pascalcaffet.co.uk/


Who the Heck drives 2½ Hours for a Sandwich?

Okay, it wasn’t only for the sandwich, but that was the moving force behind the day’s journey a month or so back. The sandwich in question was in Strasbourg, France and it really was that good. Just before Christmas two years ago, we took a day trip to Strasbourg with our dear friends and former neighbors from Würzburg, David and Daniela. Strasbourg always has a really nice Christmas market and it was as good an excuse as any to re-visit this lovely (and conveniently nearby) Alsatian city. The drive was pretty uneventful but when we got there, our usual parking garage was full. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze our Honda Odyssey into a Smart-Car-sized space in another garage with a bit of backing and filling, and we set off to find Yuletide treasures.

Aladdin's Cave?
Aladdin’s Cave?

As morning turned to afternoon, David and I wanted to grab a bite. Daniela and Mary weren’t interested so we decided we would just grab a sandwich on the run. Luckily, we found ourselves in front of a very small and inconspicuous boulangerie called Panette in the city’s “Petite France” district. They had an assortment of freshly made sandwiches under the counter and David and I selected a couple that looked likely to keep body and soul together for the rest of the afternoon. The woman behind the counter popped them into a small oven for a couple of minutes (definitely not a microwave!), then handed them over, nicely toasted. Since there was no seating, we took them with us to enjoy as we walked. We both took a bite and immediately looked at each other wide-eyed to see if we were both having the same experience. This was the best sandwich I could remember eating in my life—and anyone who knows me knows I’ve had more than a few! David was apparently having the same reaction.

A Library of Bread

It’s hard to say what made it so special. As sandwiches go, it wasn’t elaborate and there were no exotic ingredients. It started with a small baguette, baked fresh and topped with sesame seeds. This was spread with butter (Breton, I suspect) but no mayonnaise or other spreads. To this was added ham (definitely not from the refrigerator section), some local Munster cheese, fresh leaf lettuce, and finally, a light sprinkling of fresh herbs. Nothing fancy and nothing odd—just the very best ingredients working in perfect combination. My taste buds danced a can-can in celebration! I made a mental note of the bakery’s location and we vowed we would come back to Strasbourg, if only to prove to ourselves we weren’t over-reacting.

Petite France

Fast forward to July of this year. We went to Würzburg for the opening day of the Kiliani Fest, an annual celebration to honor St. Kilian, an Irish monk who introduced Christianity to the city in A.D. 686. As we sat in the fest tent enjoying the fruits of the vintners’ art from the local Franconian wine district, I asked David if he would be interested in going to Strasbourg a couple of weeks hence to grab a sandwich. “Of course!” he replied, without hesitation. Our calendars were open so we set the date.

It really is this pretty…

I won’t go into most of the details of our visit, except to say that the sandwiches did not disappoint the second time. We found the boulangerie without incident and stood in the street under our umbrellas, savoring every bite in the pouring rain. Daniela and Mary had made sure they brought their appetites with them this time and were able to provide independent confirmation that these were something more than your typical run-of-the-mill ham and cheese. We did notice that the bakery had won several quality awards since our last visit. This is no small achievement in France; the competition is stiff. Just this morning, we drove home from our latest French adventure in Troyes. We picked up a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches for the road. They were on brioche rolls rather than baguettes, but still absolutely delicious. Were they as good as the ones we got in Strasbourg? I’m not sure. But I think I’ll probably need to make several more visits to Panette before I can be really certain.