Dinner Time Stories

We had seen a YouTube video of the Petit Chef experience a few years ago, so when we discovered that the show was being offered in our Stockholm hotel (AtSix Hotel), we jumped at the chance to experience it.

The hosts escorted all the diners into a room with long nicely lit tables, set against a giant display screen. At each place setting was a closed leather-bound book. Once everyone was settled, we were asked to open the books to a middle blank page. Projected from above, a tiny animated French chef appeared on each book. He started to tell us all about his history as a young chef in Marseille.

(The stripes in the images come from trying to photograph the projected computer images.)

We all sat transfixed, smiling and laughing as the little chef wandered around the table and turned virtual pages in the books to show us post cards and animations of his travels across Asia.

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Images and patterns from his adventures spilled out beyond the books, coloring the entire table with gently animated patterns, like living fabric.

At various points in his story, the illustrations slowed to attractive background, and the waiters brought remarkably tasty clever dishes.

Depending on the theme of the dish, the display screen filled an entire wall with lovely evocative imagery. For example, floating candles in paper rose into the night sky as we ate our Chinese-inspired course.

The experience of the table’s coming alive with the Petit Chef’s charming story delighted us: a little theater magically appearing on the table. To our surprise, the food was good too! Highly recommended!

Reindeer Sledding & Sami Culture

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent another day out in the gorgeous landscape, this time with reindeer and their Sami (Lapland indigenous people) owners.

First we fed and harnessed the reindeer. They were smaller than we expected; their backs were about as high as a table top. Our Sami guide said that, while the reindeer are slightly domesticated, they remain mostly wild. We accepted the invitation to have a young male reindeer for our sled, one that was new to going out with visitors. It wasn’t that hard to harness him, but he pushed me against a fence, and stood there with my rubbing his back. He wasn’t aggressive; he just stood there against me, waiting.

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We headed out on a long sled ride through the beautiful snowy arctic countryside. We took turns with one of us “driving” and the other enjoying the ride. There were about four other sleds on this tour, and we were in the middle. Our reindeer took off at a good clip. Once he spotted the sleds in front of us, he put the pedal to the medal. All his adolescent competitiveness and hormones surged. We overtook two other sleds. All the humans were laughing. After this sprint, he stopped suddenly, tongue out panting wildly, eating snow, and ignoring our commands to keep going. He evidently hadn’t yet learned to pace himself. As soon as the sled that he had passed passed us, he was off again, in full competitive mode. Rinse; repeat.

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A glimpse of the frozen beauty
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Our speed demon rehydrating after the run

Upon return to the reindeer home base, we learned how to throw a lasso Sami-style.

We enjoyed lunch (of reindeer meat) and coffee around a fire in a lavvu, which is the traditional teepee-like Sami all-purpose structure. Our host and his sister presented us with a flat bread filled with reindeer stew, followed by hot lingonberry juice and coffee. He explained that, traditionally, when one is invited into another family’s lavvu, one must wait quietly just inside the tent opening until the host makes and offers coffee. Only then, can the visitor enter fully and start conversing.

Our host taught us with charm about the fascinating and difficult history and current life of the Sami people. His ancestors have lived for millennia in what is currently northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Originally, they followed the reindeer to hunt them. About 400 years ago, they started to domesticate the reindeer. Since that time, they keep the reindeer in the valleys in the winter, and move them up to the mountains for grazing through the summer.

Our host had also driven the van from our lodge to his place, and I had had the opportunity to sit in the front passenger seat. Some of the stories he told me had similarities to the proud and difficult history of the Hawaiian people, as well as the Maori. Once I mentioned that we had lived for a long time in Hawaii, he told me of his travels to New Zealand to meet with Maori there. He was deeply aware of the Maori’s challenges with European invaders, and the crucial 19th century treaty between the English and the Maori that underpins contemporary Maori rights. He lamented the fact that the Sami don’t have the equivalent in the Nordic countries. The history of the Sami people includes the later-arriving Swedes’ taking traditional lands, suppressing the language, forcing duplicate taxation, and more. The clash of indigenous people with arriving peoples has been fraught throughout the world.

IceHotel

Seeing and staying in the IceHotel has been a bucket-list item for us. It lived up to the anticipation.

The setting was stunning, on the banks of the completely frozen Torne river from which the IceHotel has been built each fall for the last 28 years. The builders groom the ice of the river through the winter. They sweep snow off an area of the river to prevent the snow’s insulating properties from restricting the deep freezing of the river. Before the spring thaw, they harvest huge multi-ton blocks of the clear ice for use in the next fall.

Before the hotel opens for the season in December, they reconstruct the hotel corridors, public spaces and rooms from the saved ice blocks. Each year, artists and designers from around the world submit designs for rooms. The hotel owners convene a jury to make the selections, aiming never to repeat previous designs. The artists, with some help from the hotel ice artisans, have only two weeks to carve their designs in the raw ice.

Everything is ice! The corridors, the light fixtures, the gathering space.

Here’s the main ice wall in the gathering space, from inside and from outside.

Good to know that the local building codes make it clear where to find the fire extinguisher in the ICE hotel!

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The staff explained strategies for sleeping in the ice rooms on the ice beds where it is -5C (long underwear, socks and cap; sleeping bag liner; sleeping bag; all spread on reindeer skins). Bedding down in an ice freezer was a new experience, so getting to sleep took a while as the excitement mellowed. The toilet rooms are in a heated adjacent building, so if you have to go in the middle of the night, you have to put on your coat and boots and scurry to the warmth.

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Our room was like being under the mushrooms with glowing snails!

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Insulating pad with reindeer skins — for warmth!
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Mike says Good Night

Of course we had to go to the IceBar for cocktails in glasses made of ice. With the provided arctic outerwear, we were comfortable, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of iced cocktails (and us) on ice.

We may not have had the best sleep of your life, but the experience was extraordinary.

Carcassonne Holiday Season

Bonjour à Tous et à Toutes! Hello Everyone!

Sorry for a bit of a gap in blog postings. We have been busy moving into a new house. More about that later! In the meantime, here are some belated notes and images from the holiday season here in Carcassonne.

Each December, the town of Carcassonne transforms the Place Carnot, the central town square, into a holiday village with an ice skating rink and festive vendor chalets. The chalets offer holiday arts and crafts, including traditional Provençal figurines called santon.  And they offer holiday food and wine. The food and wine stalls are always the best attended!

One day in mid December, we visited the local hardware store. Out in front of the store was this enclosure filled with attractive animals. We aren’t sure if this is a way to sell cute animals to unsuspecting parents, or a remembrance of the animals at the nativity.

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Each holiday season, a group of British expatriates organizes a large holiday fair in the region between Carcassonne and Montpellier, called the Christmas Cracker Fair*. This year, the setting was the Abbaye de Valmagne near the village of Villeveyrac. The abbey was founded in 1138, and until the beginning of the 14th century, it was one of the richest Cistercian abbeys in the south of France. Its surrounding lands have been vineyards for more than 800 years. Today it is an officially recognized Historic Monument, and venue for events like the Christmas Cracker Fair. We found rows and rows of vendors of chocolates, jams, sweaters, ornaments, wine, jewelry, and all sorts of crafts. As gifts (including one box for ourselves), we bought some delicious chocolates made with wine: two of the best products of the region all in one.

(*We had to look up why a Christmas fair would be called Cracker Fair: Christmas crackers are a British tradition. They consist of a segmented cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper with a prize in the central chamber, making it resemble an oversized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled apart by two people, each holding an outer chamber, causing the cracker to split unevenly and leaving one person holding the central chamber and prize. The split is accompanied by a mild bang or snapping sound produced by the effect of friction on a shock-sensitive, chemically impregnated card strip, similar to that used in a cap gun.)

The holiday season in Carcassonne formally starts with the Marche aux Flambeaux, or the Parade of the Torches. In the evening, the crowd gathers in the medieval Cité above the town and receives torches to carry in the parade. The crowd (including us) slowly flows through the medieval streets, out the Aude gate which overlooks the Aude River, down the stone walks, across the Pont Vieux, and into the Bastide (the “new” town from the 13th century). From our vantage in the midst of the crowd, the flickering flames and the happy faces created a magical atmosphere. When I look at the photos afterwards, it looks like the angry townspeople on their way to Frankenstein’s castle. Really, it was magical and festive. Really.

While the skating rink and holiday chalets in the Place Carnot speak of holiday tradition, across town, the winter carnival is all about kids’ rides and sugary snacks. Even on a windy cold evening, the kids, teens and adults were happily riding, jumping, squealing and laughing. We rode the ferris wheel to enjoy the view of the carnival as well as of the Cité.

Carcassonne’s main shopping street and city gate in holiday garb.

Prague stories

Beer tasting

Our “guide” introduced himself as a young British guy who found himself in the Czech Republic when his money ran out during his travels around Europe. He discovered that he liked the country, the people, and the beer. He explained that the Czech people drink more beer per capita than any other people in the world, even more than in Germany. When averaged over every child and adult in the country, each person consumes 142 liters per year. Since not many children drink beer, and in some parts of the country wine or spirits are preferred, this means that in Bohemia (where Prague is), it is not uncommon for adults to drink five or six liters of beer each day.

He asked who had been to a wine tasting. We raised our hands. He said this was certainly not like that. No refined discussion of notes of raspberry, leather and citrus. And certainly no spitting out of beer after the tasting. For Czech people, beer is much too valuable to be spat out; beer is for drinking, and drinking a lot.

He selected seven Czech beers for us to try.

He told us is about the differences between lagers and ales (ales ferment at room temperature, lagers ferment at cold temperatures around 5 degrees Celsius with a different type of yeast).

He told the story of the first golden colored lager which German master brewer Josef Groll developed in the Czech town of Plzen in 1842. Before that time, the hops in beer making was always roasted, giving beer a dark color. Today’s Czech beer Pilsner Urquell (meaning Primary Source Pilsner) is the direct descendent of the beer that changed the beer world from dark to light.

One of the beers he offered was dark in color, light in body and full of coffee flavor. He asked us for a show of hands for those who liked this beer. Most of our group (6 men and 2 women) raised our hands. He chuckled and said that Czech people consider this a woman’s beer; if he ordered it in a pub, he’d be ribbed and heckled mercilessly. He admitted that he liked it too, but drank it only during these beer tastings with foreigners.

 

Food tour

The guide for our Cheeky Food Tour of Prague was a charming 35-year-old Czech man named Karel. After years of living abroad, he and his wife decided to offer a food tour of the city. They looked around and saw competition that focused on expensive high-end Michelin-starred food. They wanted to offer a peek into the food of everyday Czech people.

We started at 11am at a popular traditional Czech food restaurant called Lokal, where just by chance we had eaten the night before. Karel admitted later in the time we were together that when we told him that we had eaten there the night before, he was sweating that he would bore us with what he had planned. He didn’t need to have worried. He ordered plates of sausages, pickled cheese, and beef tongue. Here is a short video in which he introduces us to some Czech food:

And of course there was beer: two glasses, at 11am. One was about 80% froth; it is known as milk. Here he explains the usefulness of all that froth:

We noticed the cryptic graphic piece of paper that the server left on the table after Karel had ordered the food and wine. You can see that there are lines of beer mugs, with a 1-meter dimension line on top. If you line up this number of glasses, it takes about a meter of table space. Since Czech people enjoy their beer so much, they consume it by the meter. We newbies couldn’t even much past 50cm.51BA3067-53CC-4551-9F0E-7B5C7CB301B3

So far, so good. Pretty much as expected with meat, sauerkraut, potatoes and beer. Next stop wasn’t quite so expected. We walked a few blocks away and stopped beneath a 1970s building at a series of wooden food stalls. At the first, he ordered Vietnamese spring rolls. At the second, he ordered plastic cups of local white wines. He said that these cheap fresh wines go really well with Vietnamese food, which they did!

Why Vietnamese food on a Czech food tour?

Here is Karel’s explanation of how it is that Vietnamese food has a place in Czech culture today. He noted that during and after the Vietnam war, many refugees and immigrants from South Vietnam came to the US. They created their own communities and found their way into the US culture. At that time, since Czechoslovakia was communist, people from North Vietnam, and ultimately communist unified Vietnam, came to the country. The legacy of this period and transfer of people is Vietnamese restaurants and food booths in Prague and the rest of the country.

Later in our time in Prague, we learned an alternative explanation. Our driver to and from the airport was very well-spoken and knowledgeable about Czech history, art and architecture. He looked a bit like the comedic actor Chris Elliott, tall and slim, droopy shoulders and eyes, stringy hair and a prominent nose. First impression is of a tired shady man, but once he started talking, he was full of life and interesting facts. He revised our understanding of the arrival and integration of Vietnamese in the Czech Republic. According to him, during the Communist era, people from a North Vietnam came to Czechoslovakia to be trained in factory work and management. After training, they returned to Vietnam. Then, in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Communists, some Vietnamese immigrated to the Czech Republic; they had some knowledge of the country and the language from those who had been trained during the 1970s. At first they sold inexpensive textiles from China and elsewhere, initially from market stalls, and then from shops. Little by little, the Czech people noticed that they were buying houses and joining Czech society. It has been only in the last 10 years or so that Vietnamese restaurants have appeared, including in small neighborhoods.

Next stop was a shop with deli cases full of open-face sandwiches, cakes and alcohol. Karel said that the shop has been in operation at this location for a very long time, including during the communist era. In Czech culture, for major life events like weddings, funerals, and baptisms, families gather but they don’t typically prepare the food themselves; they buy these kinds of open-face sandwiches for all the guests. The hosts carefully select the types of sandwiches to satisfy the specific tastes of each guest. The more aligned the hosts are in their choices with their guests, the more successful the event. Karel selected a huge array for us, from simple tomato and cheese, to ham, garlic spread, sardines paste, pickled herring, and even a version completely encased in aspic.

Desserts: The final stop was a long-lived famous (to Czech people) cake and coffee shop. While the interiors have been renovated many times over the decades (hence the current retro-sixties modern atmosphere), the tradition of local and German and Austrian cakes lives on. We were five men on our food tour, and we were surrounded by many many ladies who were taking a coffee or tea and a cake, and were obviously enjoying a mid-afternoon outing. Karel again made the choices, through which we had to suffer: apple strudel, a honey layered cake (apparently starts out dry, but when left in the fridge acquires the right amount of moistness), cream-filled pastry, pavlova (meringue coated with whipped cream and strawberries), and, specifically for Mike, a dark chocolate cake.

We found ourself talking about tipping. The four of us had experienced in most restaurants, admittedly deep in the tourist district, the servers’ being very clear that tips had not yet been included in the bill and were emphatically expected. We had read online that 10% – 15% was appropriate. Karel, on the other hand, shook his head and stated firmly that Czech people don’t tip and Czeck servers don’t expect to be tipped; they are adequately paid for their work already. As is the case in many other tourist centers around the world, however, the servers and the restaurateurs recognize the opportunities to open the door to tipping by foreign visitors. Karel said that the people working in the cake shop where we were would not expect a tip, and probably would refuse any. He said that in the rest of the Czech Republic, away from the tourist spots, tipless food service was the norm.

 

Restaurace Bellevue: some fine dining

On our first evening in Prague, we sought out a tasting-menu restaurant in the hopes of discovering creative cuisine and Czech wines.

[Non-foodies can stop here. But for you who love food, we want to share this because we were surprised and delighted about just how good this meal was.]

This is the review we posted on Tripadvisor:

Inventive, delicious fine dining with beautiful view of Prague Castle
We were looking for a delicious tasting-menu meal in a beautiful setting, and we succeeded. In fact, the meal and experience were among the best we’ve enjoyed, and we live in France. While not all the tables offer the direct view of the castle, we were fortunate that ours did. We selected the five-course Dégustation menu with its wine pairing. The composition of tastes in each dish matched the gorgeous visual presentation. The mi-cuit foie gras was the most flavorful and buttery foie that we’ve ever enjoyed. Most of the wines were Czech, which we appreciated. At first sniff and taste, we noticed their distinctiveness; but each one opened up and complemented the food really well. We had expected a nice dinner in a nice setting, but we enjoyed a first-class dining experience — in a beautiful setting. Highly recommended.

A few images for your visual taste buds:7D72AEBC-953E-4B2F-BA03-D5B959C65C96BE4B7DB5-225A-45FF-B0CE-A66D69A2B175369256EA-0E09-45E0-B6E5-AB611AE201D227F8E063-BBEE-43F8-BA2D-C20521A595C91FAB8267-C1AB-4EAB-95FA-F4B1DE92131C7E8EB1FE-CA94-45E1-BE98-9A211CB6B79F97C1142E-09F9-42C2-B13F-47F6D72CBEE5

Prague in images

We spent three days in Prague, exploring, eating and drinking. Not much text in this post; just lots of images. We’ve include links to Wikipedia entries for those of you who are curious — and have lots of time on your hands. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this virtual tasting of Prague.

The Vltava River organizes the experience of the Old Town.

The Charles Bridge connects the Old Town and Prague Castle. It is the major visitor thoroughfare between the districts.

Prague Cityscape

The Prague Sky

Old Town Square

Astronomical Clock: Every hour, the clock animates. Crowds form, holding phones high, in anticipation. Then everyone says, “That’s it?” But imagine what this was like in the 15th century!

Church of Our Lady before Týn: Before Disney and Harry Potter.

Prague Castle is an entire town that overlooks the rest of the city. All the history of Prague has played out here.

St Vitus Cathedral is the center-piece of the castle. The west half (with the choir) is ancient; the east half was completed in the early 20th century. From real gothic to neo-gothic. Turn-of-the-20th-century artists designed the luminous stained glass windows.

St George’s Basilica is also in the Castle

Church of Our Lady of the Snows is in the lower Old Town. Beautiful gothic nave into which was pushed an elaborate baroque altar piece.

Around town

Gothic details

Baroque details

Modern details

Swans add fairy-tale spice to the Vltava River.

Crystal and glass shops are everywhere. This one is beyond bling.

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Feria

The feria of Carcassonne is one of the major events of year, a gathering for fans of bullfights but also for all those who like a neighborly festival. We skipped the bullfighting: not quite our cup of tea. But we attended a dance performance and enjoyed the food-and-music evening festivities.

Traditionally, the feria was an agricultural and cattle-focused fair in Spain. Cattle breeders showcased the quality of their animals at the feria. In south and southwest France, Catalan and Spanish cultures are interwoven with French culture, which means that the traditions of feria and bullfighting have long had a home here. These days, the feria in France take place in a number of southern cities at various times of the year, most notably in Bayonne, Béziers, Nimes or Dax, but also in smaller towns such as Parentis-en-Born, Arles, and of course Carcassonne. They may be purely bullfighting, purely festive or, more often, they mix corridas (bullfights), novilladas (young bullfights), cavalcades and other community festivities.

In Carcassonne, during several days at the end of August, festival-goers attend the bullfights, and go around the city to listen to the bands, to enjoy a drink outdoors thanks to the many bodegas, and to attend dance and music concerts.

During one afternoon of this year’s feria, we walked to Place Carnot, the town square, to watch a group of Sevillan dancers and musicians. There were lots of great Spanish music and great dresses and costumes. We were reminded of hula performances because it was apparent that this was an amateur troupe of lovers of Sevillan dance, including some, shall we say, more seasoned women who were obviously the teachers and leaders of the group. While most hula halau prize precision and smiling countenance, these dancers were more casual. We could see a diversity of facial expressions: some were obviously concentrating very hard on the moves, others looked a bit bored, some were passionate and composed, some were a little lost. But it was easy to be swept up in the great music, the movement and color, and the immediacy of these lovers of Sevillan dance.

And we could enjoy the moves of the next generation too.

Later that evening, we walked the few blocks from our house over to the food and music festivities. We had already clearly heard the music from the previous evening; it had sounded like it was coming from the street just outside our house; Carcassonne was filled with the sounds of the feria!

Like fairs everywhere, food stalls surrounded the party areas.

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But this is feria in the south of France. There were the occasional burgers, but mostly the stalls offered Toulouse sausages, duck in many forms, beef, pork, fried Mediterranean seafood, and even some foie gras. A sea of communal tables filled the spaces between the stalls. We didn’t at first know quite what to do: Do we go to the stall and order, and then take the food to places at the big tables? We found two seats at a table that was otherwise filled with people. We sat down just to figure out what to do. Seconds later, a friendly woman server appeared, pen and pad in hand, and asked us what we wanted. Ah, this is France: you sit down and get served! Along with some mixed plates of sausage, beef and duck, we ordered a pitcher of sangria; this is also Catalonia after all. The plates came with generous helpings of fries, which must be the common fair food worldwide? Not a vegetable in sight!

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As you can see, our table mates were passionate about their time at the feria.

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The Latin heritage of the feria apparently extends far and wide. The main music act was a band from Havana. The Cuban music and rhythms filled the fair and the city.

Carcassonne party goers of all ages, from little kids to their grand parents, filled the fair area, seated at the communal tables as well as standing and moving to the music, and dancing. The feeling was completely a small-town celebration.

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