Thursday, July 17, 2014 my mind's eye...17 again

In my mind's eye, while walking down the Champs Elysées in the heart of Paris this summer, I imagined I was 17 years old once more.

My son, who was walking next to me, faded into obscurity as I imagined this same walk, only years ago.  My present-day short cropped hair grew long and thick again.  My 40 year old self morphed into my 17 year old self...young and lithe from years of intense ballet training.

I was part of a ballet company, recruited to perform in various parts of France.  My dreams, since early childhood, to dance and to travel, were unfolding before my eyes. As I took each step in Paris, my 17 year-old self marveled at the sights that would greatly influence my future self.

At the time, this trip symbolized a turning point in my  unstable young life.  I was, am, and always will be...a dreamer.  My taurus-like disposition clawed at the restrictions imposed in my childhood, railed at the treatment that I endured daily, and bellowed at the abandonment by those who were supposed to protect me.

Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre Museum)

But, in Paris I experienced my first taste of freedom from a childhood of difficulty and continuous affronts.  Paris was a chance to lose the self that was rejected over and over again and reinvent a new self that gave me a first glimpse of a possible me. Paris took me in as a bewildered and emotionally needy young girl...and turned me into a graceful and promising young woman.

So many things changed in my life after that time spent dancing through Paris and France.  Paris, as an experience, was like a gift, that when opened offered me a chance at a type of freedom of mind and of possibility I had not thought probable.  

I remember, as if it were yesterday, walking down the Champs Elysées in Paris.  I had not yet seen such glorious sights.  I was captivated by it all, completely unintimidated by it all, and spellbound by the intoxicating allure embodied by this great city.

Braised Pork with a Roasted Apricot Mustard Sauce;
Zucchini and Squash Tart with Goat Cheese and french herbs

We were an intimate group of dancers sharing an incredible experience together.  We trained hard every day.  We knew each other's strengths and weaknesses.  We worked well together and formed a close-knit supportive group.

I remember one of the first evenings in the city, several of us randomly decided to enter a beautiful looking restaurant somewhere along the Champs Elysées.  We had little money for a full course dining experience but we thought perhaps a sophisticated drink would be a worthy albeit impromptu experience.

The restaurant that pulled us in glowed red from the light gleaming through the tall elegant windows.  The beckoning glow was radiating from the wall color. They were painted a crimson red and the interior lighting produced a dark and moody atmosphere that was cozy and welcoming.  The corners of the room were swallowed in shadow from the rich color scheme and the barely lit dining room.  We loved it. We  felt more sophisticated just being enveloped in its ambiance. 

Braised Pork with Roasted Apricot Mustard Sauce;
Zucchini and Squash Tart with Chevre and Fresh Herbs

Most of us had no idea what to order.  A drink...we all agreed...but which drink?  A sophisticated Parisian drink.  We all looked at each other, waiting for someone to cue each other in as to what defined a sophisticated Parisian cocktail.  It had not only to be elegant-sounding but it was suggested it should have a rather dangerous connotation as well...

Our eyes glistened with excitement and anticipation of it all.  Initially, we glanced uncomfortably around the plush interior knowing we didn't quite belong there, knowing our pocketbooks would certainly give us away as certainly not belonging there.

Treats from the Paris patisseries

When it was my turn to order, I bravely met the waiter's face and carefully stated in my rehearsed french that I would like "a black Russian".  

"A black Russian" he repeated, one intrigued eyebrow shooting upwards in a gesture that was either mockingly trite or mischievously amused. I couldn't quite tell really.

Truth be told, I had no idea if the drink I ordered existed.  I might have read about it in a novel or imagined this drink in my very overactive imagination.  Regardless, the freedom I was experiencing that day, and all the days that followed, was a freedom so heady that no fancy cocktail could match the intoxication that I felt in that year of life.  I barely took any sips of the strange looking murky concoction that arrived at our elegant french table.  I was simply thrilled to sit there, with supportive friends around me, and enjoy a freedom that I had not experienced before. 

Puro FairTrade Coffee Company samples

One drink, however, that became a habit for life on this trip...was coffee.  We ordered café lattes and café cremes one after the other that entire time in France.  Thus, a love for coffee was firmly established in France.  

I love coffee.  In Louisiana, there is the distinctively delicious roast enjoyed by locals, because of the addition of chicory root.  In France, I had been introduced to that dark roasted french coffee that is mixed with steamed whole milk... and I loved it.

So recently, when the fairtrade company, Puro Coffees contacted me to see if I would like to sample their blends, I was tickled and curious and said yes.

Their offer was quite timely.  Riley and I had been studying about the growing partnerships between large corporations and small regional producers around the world that are being called fairtrade agreements.  With my love of coffee and his learning about fairtrade partnerships in business, this taste testing experience was an opportunity to learn more about how businesses can do good things for our planet as well as small regional coffee bean producers. 

Puro is a leading brand of Fairtrade and Fair Trade Organic coffee that works in partnership with the World Land Trust to purchase and protect areas of precious rainforest in South Equador, Columbia, and Brazil.

Riley and I read about what it means to be a "fair trade" company.  We learned that the  Fairtrade Foundation has set the standard to help lift working conditions and improve the lives of millions of people that work in the coffee growing dependent communities in the developing world.  

Puro Brand coffee being sampled with
packages of french butter cookies brought back from Paris

Money from each bag of Puro coffee sold goes towards buying and protecting areas of rainforest vital for biodiversity in coffee producing countries.  They have a beautiful video that illustrates what they are all about.

Currently, the coffee beans are being purchased by a central company in Belgium.  The company, however, is looking to partner with countries around the world.  

I was surprised and disappointed to read that there is no distributor for the Puro brand yet for the United States.  When I inquired, I realized the  coffee beans can, however, be purchased through their online site

This past summer, I again enjoyed frequent cups of wonderful lattés and crèmes in France.  I remembered those initial tastes years ago and had no idea what a fun journey it would be to discover various types of coffees over the years.

Whereas I've given little thought to where and how coffee beans are grown, I now have another layer of learning to discover about these little beans.  What a terrific learning experience it was for Riley, as well as for myself, to interact with this company and understand how they operate.  

And how wonderful, as a parent, to possibly plant a seed for Riley to consider in his future.   Perhaps he may consider working for a business  someday that cares and  works to protect our planet at the same time as provide products we all want to enjoy...whether it be in a cozy Parisian café or the many coffee bars dotting our cities all over the U.S. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Big Red, White, and Blue...just blew out some candles!

I've been away the first half of the summer in France.  When we returned, the spirit of the upcoming 4th of July festivities was spreading across the country.

From little red, white, and blue cupcake toppers to red, white, and blue pool media has been streaming those adorable coordinated family photo outfits, wonderful patriotic decorated cookies, and enough 4th of July picnic recipes to have me wanting to cook way too many dishes than was really necessary or advisable for the summer waist line.

I don't know if I've mentioned it lately...but I tend to sing a one-hit-wonder when it gets to this point in the summer, 

"I'm's hot...we're hot...everyone's hot".  

It's a bit of an monotonous chain melody that tends to aggravate and annoy my dear loved ones.

It's tough being active in this humid environment down south.  My morning walks moved to 6:30am and now they have all but trickled to a halt as we bear the brunt of the summer heat.  Even Chester doesn't run to the door and wiggle from head to toe in anticipation.  He'd much rather spread out on the cool tile floors and pretend he no longer understands the word "w.a.l.k."

But the spirit of 4th of July just can't be resisted.  The stores were filled with all assortment of picnic paraphernalia. Crawfish boil pots were stacked up alongside bags of crawfish seasonings.  Watermelons of all sizes are spilling out of bins ready to be sliced into cold wedges and slightly salted as they are eaten hand to mouth. 

Hurricane Arthur tried his best to sweep along the eastern seaboard and cancel festivities.  But according to Instagram  and Facebook...fireworks were popping, grills were BBQ'ing, and s'mores were being stacked and toasted over crackling fires right up and down the seacoast in spite of the persistent bouts of reported rain showers.

We weren't entirely spared down here from the whipping tailend of inclement weather.  The difference here is that most people feel relief when the showers pound our dry soil and soak into the soil to reach the thirsty roots that are begging to be replenished again.

We had a doozy of a string of storms pass through on the 4th of July.  Thunder shouted down all over Houston.  Polly and Chester both clung to me like velcro...searching my eyes for a reassuring look or a comforting nuzzle under the chin.  Pea-sized hail rained down with a clinking pitter-patter that sprayed the windows and roof with a noise certainly we are not used to hearing very often.

Surprisingly, after all of those booming thunder sounds and flashes of lightening that streaked across the sky, the rains stopped. Around 9:00pm the popping of fireworks could be heard all over the city. 

We were quite wimpy over here this year.  Usually we are down at the Table Rock Lakes in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.  

We're usually rocking peacefully in a boat, out on the middle of the lake, with 1000's of other boats. We all watch the rain of fireworks pop all over the sky then gently fall down through the smoky air creating lovely reflections of colors in the water.

This year, we were snugly tucked away in our Houston home, air conditioner humming, and watching the fireworks all over the city from our upstairs windows.  We have this set of windows that span the upstairs of our home. An entire panorama of the city can be seen from north to south.  We certainly used it as an excuse to stay put and not get drenched outside.

We'll be down at the lake soon, rocking in the boat to the gentle waves of the lake and listening to the happy shrieks of kids as they leap from the dock into the water hundreds of times throughout the day.

This summer, we have to get our Ms. Madeleine home from France before we can head up there.  We'll give her a brief respite from her european journey, wash some clothes, unpack suitcases and then pack up again to head to our yearly family reunion.  

Chester gets to come along for the journey this time.  He loves, loves, loves road trips.  Each and every time we stop for a driving break, he explores a new rest stop with such fervor and excitement that you'd think that was the objective of our stopping for Chester.

Just baked fresh Peach out of the oven

But, even though we were entertained by a mixture of hail stones and then fireworks this simply cannot forget about planning, prepping, and finally indulging in 4th of July food!  

BBQ'ing is always involved.  I decided to slowly braise some short ribs soaked in BBQ sauce, tomatoes, chili peppers, and spices.  I roasted some onions and peppers to go alongside all of the fixings for Mexican soft tacos.  

Grilled Corn, blackened just a bit to add that smokiness,  swiped with butter, sprinkled with salt and parsley flakes went alongside slices of that juicy bright watermelon.  

There was one dessert that kept calling for me this year.  I love when a particular dessert lodges into my mind and I cannot loosen its influence.   Somehow I know that there is nothing that can keep me from holding onto the idea of the dish with gusto, until it lands on our table.

This year...that dessert that latched on to my imagination and tempted my taste buds was a classic  "Peach Cobbler with a Bourbon Whipped Cream"  

Peaches are everywhere right beautiful, fuzzy, and velvety.  I love watching the batter puff up around the peaches as the house fills with the mixture of baked fruit and cake.  A swig of bourbon in the whipped cream pairs nicely with the syrup that is created when the juices of the peaches cook into the puffy batter.

So, just as the 4th of July was a mixture of storminess and was quite a reflection of the birthday year that America celebrated this year.

We are a nation that is raging over issues that test the very core of our Constitution.  

It is a time of rapid change in this country as traditional ideologies are challenged and the country shifts, expands, stretches, and continues to debate, ponder, and celebrate the messy, wonderful, colorful mixture of cultures that is and always will be the defining characterization and core of this beautiful country of ours. picnics are at the ready and booming fireworks light the sky, summer storms  rain down attempting to mess it all up.  This is how it is supposed to be.  No one would work hard to make it any other way if it was all too easy.  Let that be our birthday lesson learned this year as we huff and puff to get that very last candle blown out.

Happy Birthday America...blow out those ever growing number of flickering candles!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Following the Paris! Flavors of Paris Food tour with Lisa Rankin

Fruit Tarts at the Gerard Mulot Patisserie in St. Germain de Pres

"Riley, I cannot wait until Thursday..."  I pronounced while settling ourselves into our flight to Paris while lining up 3-4 movies to entertain myself for the next 9 or so hours of travel time.

"Mom... I, as well as most people you have encountered between Houston and the airport, are now very much aware of your excitement for Thursday's plans." retorted my now less than favorite, favorite son.

I gave him a withering look,followed by an appropriately sulky expression, and went back to my  reverie about our upcoming Thursday date for the...

Flavors of Paris Food Tour ( be exact)

Top Left:  Lisa Rankin of Flavor of Paris food tour
Bottom Left:  Baguettes in the Eric Kayser baker

I readily admit it. I have been utterly spoiled now with my discovery of food tours.  For a personality like mine...whose travel experiences usually center around meal times, market shopping for meals, and tasting anything and everything that looks unique and interesting during and inbetween tours have become my standard go-to indulgence.

After having an amazing "off the beaten path" themed food tour in Istanbul, Turkey here, and then two more in San Francisco here and here...I am indeed smitten with this way of introducing culture and cuisine into travel.

The little nooks and crannies of the cobblestone streets of St. Germain de Près neighborhood

I chose "Flavors of Paris" food tour, led by Canadian Lisa Rankin, because her site description seemed so sincere and personable.  Also, I was staying in St. Germain de Près and her signature tour highlights a culinary journey of this charming, sophisticated and artistic neighborhood of Paris.    

Top Left:  Dashing Gentlemen enjoying his morning respite at "Les Deux Magots"
Bottom Left:  One of the 2 statues of Chinese silk merchants that flanks the restaurant dining area
Bottom Right:  The tea room inside the Laduree Macaron Shop in St. Germain neighborhood

When Thursday rolled around, I nearly skipped out of our apartment, which if you saw the twisty winding narrow staircase of crumbling tilted tile steps leading to the street, the image of me actually skipping would be giggle-inducing.  After embarrassing my teen son, by acting like a hyper school-girl, I settled down as we fell into the Paris flow and tried to look a bit more sophisticated as we walked the few blocks to our meeting point with the historic St. Germain Church.

With nary a glance at the patisseries we passed, filled with  crescent-shaped croissants and just delivered baguettes,we kept a straight line walk to our meeting point, knowing we would need as much tummy space as possible for the tastes of a bit of this...and a little sample of a bit of that.  Lisa's website promised us many tastes of the flavors of beautiful Paris.  And the tour certainly delivered as promised.

I thought Riley and I had canvassed the St. Germain neighborhood (which is the 6th Arrondissement) pretty well during our stay in Paris thus far.

However, almost ALL of the stops on Lisa's tour had eluded us. I was thrilled to drop "pins" on my iphone map of the well-chosen locations so we could return to them and not only soak in more of the experience, but do a bit more shopping as well.

Eric Kayser Bakery;
 The many art studios in the neighborhood;
brioche rolls topped with sugar nuggets

When gathered at the meeting point, we were an intimate group of 7...two mother/daughter pairs, one sweetheart of a girl from Australia, and our mother/son addition.  

Our first stop was the bakery La Maison Kayser.  The heady aromas lured us directly to the polished glass cases of baked goods.  Even now, as I write this, my senses can almost re-fabricate the warm earthy smell of freshly baked breads, the flaky golden croissants, and the dense braided loaves of brioche.

We all settled around the café tables, ready to indulge in hot crusty croissants and steaming cups of espresso and café crème...eager to hear Lisa tell us the stories of this wonderful bakery.

Each month, Eric Kayser and his head bakers, pastry chefs, and cooks develop a new recipe to highlight the seasonal fruits and vegetables.  Rosette Beaujolais bread, quetsche or mirabelle plum tart in the autumn, or yogurt and feta Mediterranean pita for the summer.

As Eric Kayser opens a new bakery location, he and his team create a signature bread that is their gift and mark to that location.  They also carefully scour regions for the highest quality grains as well as butters.  In their new bakery in Japan, the demand is so great, that customers are limited to a purchase of 2 croissants each!

The word "lovely" comes to mind first when describing our tour guide, Lisa.  She is a soft spoken Canadian who led us along for 3 and a half hours. We never felt rushed, she answered our many questions, and she openly shared her expat knowledge of this delightful Parisian neighborhood.  

The "chocolate" lamps in the chocolate bar section of "Un Dimanche à Paris"

Lisa walked us into the famous bistro, "Les Deux Magots", once a popular hangout of the literary elite of the city.  We were curious about the origins of the name, which means "The Two Figurines".   It seems that the restaurant used to be a Chinese silk shop, which in turn, took its name from a popular play of that time period called "Les Deux Magots de la Chine".  In time, two statues of traveling Chinese merchants were erected in the restaurant and even today, they sit tall and proud as they look over the patrons of the place.

Top Left:  The super thick, rich, delicious hot chocolate at "Un Dimanche à Paris"
Bottom Left:  Watching pastries come together at "Un Dimanche à Paris"
Bottom Right:  The "tearoom" inside of "Un Dimanche à Paris"

We also ventured into a restaurant dating from 1686, called Le Procope.  Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli from Palermo, Italy, established a popular place to gather and for centuries now, the city's top intellectuals, politicians, and elite enjoy this historic location.  The rich ruby reds on the walls are complimented by the black and white marble floors.  They work beautifully together to create a crisp but cozy atmosphere that seems comfortable but très chic and elegant at the same time.

It appears that Napoleon Bonaparte gifted this establishment with his own hat.  Truly!  Napoleon's own chapeau is proudly displayed just to the left as one enters the dining room in a glass case. 

The dizzying array of chocolates on offer at "Un Dimanche à Paris" in St. Germain de Près

Drops of cool rain began to fall in a quiet drizzle.  We had already bonded so well as a group, swapping stories of life in Boston, Texas, Australia and California, we hardly noticed that we were all huddled together and carelessly oblivious to the light rain.

For our next stop, Lisa walked us to the sumptuous restaurant, known for their rich decadent chocolates, "Un Dimanche à Paris".  

Scenes from the St. Germaine neighborhood in Paris

She wanted to introduce us to the "chocolate bar" located in one section of the restaurant...more specifically, Lisa wanted us to sample one of their featured offerings...the thick, rich, incredible hot chocolate drink.

The incredible fruit tarts and desserts at Gerard Mulot Patisserie

The restaurant is owned by, Pierre Cluizel and Sylvie Valette.  "Un Dimanche à Paris" means "A Sunday in Paris".  They dreamed that their place would offer everything that one dreams of when thinking of the relaxation implied by this restive day of the the finest chocolate, a beautiful lingered-over luncheon, and choices of deliciously made pastries.

Un Premiere Pression Provence;  olive oil shop and grocer

After sipping our cups of velvety rich hot chocolate, there was a hushed silence that swept over the group.  We all agreed in soft murmurs and in almost reverential tones that we had never tasted a drink so refined, layered, complex, and indulgent.

Sweets and Savories in the Gerard Mulot Patisserie in St. Germain de Près neighborhood

We meandered through an area of St. Germain that was exactly as I would have imagined and hoped for as we followed Lisa along from one delightful stop to the next.

The drizzle of soft rain left a layer of wet patina on everything. The wetness made the cobblestones shimmer and the richly colored stones and bricks of the buildings appeared deeper and broodier and well....even more Parisienne.

"Premiere Pression Provence" was our next stop on the tour.  Lisa would have a difficult time getting us out of this delightful shop.  The products were so artfully displayed and intriguing. The various products, alongside the varieties of olive oils, stone olive grinding wheels, and glass olive oil jars, added an organic atmosphere to the shop.  There were large clear vats of olive oil where one can select a particular kind of oil harvested in Provence, have a bottle filled, and be off with a personalized blend selection.  We definitely planned a return trip here the next day to make some purchases.  

Olivier Baussan, the founder of the lovely "L'Occitane" shops (those shops, filled with lavendar scented lotions and oils, often located in major airports, give a weary traveler a brief escape to Provence, France)  wanted to create a shop that primarily featured the many varieties of rare olive oils, as well as the passionate producers of them.

Inside the large indoor St. Germain Market

Tucked away in a cozy back alley off of the Boulevard St. Germain with bumpy cobblestones that add to the characteristic charm of the area, this little shop characterizes itself in this quote; 

"At Première Pression Provence,  36 olive producers [of Provence] are promoted, and the oils fussed over like Grand Cru wines"

We tasted about 6 of these Grand Cru olive oils and there was no mistaking the differences between each type of olive.  From the black to the green olives and every type in between, each had a taste that distinctively identified its producer and the region.

Sweets from the Gerard Mulot Patisserie and seafood from the St. Germain Market

Before reaching one of the final stops, where we sat down and indulged in a savory course followed by a dessert sampling, Lisa wanted us to stop and visit the patisserie "Gerard Mulot".

Most of the pastry photos are from the gorgeous array of tortes, chocolates, macarons, quiches, and fruit tarts at the Gerard Mulot shop.  

For our final stop, we walked through the spacious St. Germain Covered Market.  The stalls are all inside of a building but are set up in the typical street market fashion.  From vegetable producers to cheese makers, meat suppliers, and wines merchants...a tempting array of goods can be purchased and then enjoyed at the many tables that surround the market.  

We all sat down to a carefully selected platter of cheeses, patés and breads...all washed down with sips of several red wines from the wine shop.  For dessert, we had samples of the macarons from Gerard Mulot's shop as well as an array of delicious sweets.  

It is always difficult to break away from the people that I meet on a food tour.  The experience of tasting food together as a group in a foreign country, swapping life stories, bonding within minutes of meeting one another is such an emotionally enriching one, that I often give my last hug to the last group member with tears in my eyes.  

We all shared an amazing experience, that drizzly Paris morning, so rich and so purely enjoyable.  Afterwards, we all scattered to our corners of the world with such special memories of warm laughter, hilarious stories of adventures as well as mis-adventures, and true and honest intentions and well wishes for one another.  As quickly as we bonded, we just as quickly parted ways at the end of a magical journey together...thanks to lovely Lisa of "Flavors of Paris" St. Germain food tour.