Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Faded not blown

I am always content to find a bit of beauty in unexpected places.

Just as I was ready to throw out last week's tulips, I took a moment to see them once more, as they were and found their forms--lolling tongue's and grounded wings--more fascinating than the perfect bloom.

And so I am sharing them with you. A last gesture of appreciation!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Provencal charm at Valdition


Back in Provence the Mistral is blowing! My oh my, there were days this past week when I was pushed around like a rag doll. But as I often note, this broom sweeps the sky clean and lets the blue shine through, so I will not complain, even if the winds can leave me feeling as if my bones were being used to play the xylophone.

In such weather, it helps to have fun things to do, of course. Remi and I put Ben in the back of the Range Rover and headed out on a mission. I had always heard that the Domaine de Valdition was one of the loveliest wine estates to visit in the Alpilles and yes, the reputation is well-deserved. Through the gates and down, down, down the long allée of pines...


...there is a dollhouse of a tasting room and boutique that is simply so charming I could have moved right in.

We had come to pick up some wine for a special dinner. Our dear friends Sonny and Michael had first introduced us to the winery's award-winning rosé or "pink" as Michael likes to call it, last summer. But it certainly is not yet the moment for rosé! Brrr!! No, we chose the excellent Vallon des Anges, a Coteaux d'Aix that is 80% Syrah, just perfect for the lamb we would be serving it with. 

There was so much, too much else to tempt. Little chickens, fruity vinegar, honey with black truffle! 

The rest of the domaine is worth a look around. All of the elements that make so many of us sigh over Provence are here. The main mas with its ancient tiles and stone wrapped in a cream lime-wash...

...little corners to while away a sunny afternoon...

...burbling fountains (those with a magnifying glass might spy a sad-faced Ben looking out of the rear view window in the background)...

...crawling vines and perfectly tended topiary...

...and all in a secluded corner of the Alpilles that just becomes more beautiful to me with each and every moment that I pass there. 

It comes as no surprise to learn that the estate was a gift from King François the First to his daughter and that the estate remained in the same family for four centuries. There is something so timeless and beyond time about this special place. How wonderful to see that the 280 hectares are still so lovingly treasured.

I still have more to share on my trip to Michigan but thought that this was just right for today.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Not exactly McDo

It never ceases to amaze me the differences between the French and American cultures and the widespread misconceptions that each have towards each other as well. Certainly one of the most emotionally charged of those concerns food and our respective eating habits. After having lived with a Frenchman for ten years, I can tell you that it would be unwise to ever even hint to him that his countries cuisine is not the finest in the world. But is it, as too many Americans still think, nothing but heavy sauces and foie gras? Of course not. Just as in the States, we actually do eat more than fast food and frozen dinners. Voici la preuve...

One of the aspects of contemporary American cuisine that I love the most is how the influences of our many ethnicities have taken hold in our cooking to create a fusion that is not reserved for the ultra-luxe. Such creativity can be found on fine display at my favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Vinology. I remember being slightly skeptical (snotty ex-NYer that I was) when I first heard that there was a wine-based restaurant in Ann Arbor but this was before my first visit to this very cosmopolitan town. I remember strolling up to the wine racks over the bar and not only did I immediately spy a Bandol but a Domaine Tempier at that. Pas mal. How far the Midwest has come since the 70s when my Dad asked for Perrier in our local grocery store upon his return from a visit to France and the clerk asked "Perry who?"

Vinology is wonderful at any time of day and has a rotating menu of regionally sourced specialties including small plates that are served late into the night. My Mom and I were able to go for lunch this visit. A quiet moment for just us two to stretch out and enjoy. 

Now, I can hear ample scoffing from both sides of the pond at my salad choice. Iceberg lettuce? Yes, and let me tell you, if it always tasted this fresh it would have never gone out of fashion. I had forgone the Thai salad with its tofu-massamam curry cream because I was still in need of consuming all of the Americana I could get. And with its farmhouse cheddar, smoked bacon, hand-cut baby frites and creamy potato dressing, I wasn't disappointed. All of this for $4. $4! Sheesh.

As Vinology has decided to extend Happy Hour throughout the day and wines are half off, we both splurged on a Syrah that what would have been an otherwise scoff-worthy price of $14 per glass. Luckily, we sipped as we chatted because who knows what the alcohol content of that puppy was. Off the charts is all I know. Note to our cute waiter: such a powerhouse is probably not the best recommendation for two ladies at lunch. Fortunately, we had hearty meals on our way.

Lamb Osso Bucco isn't exactly American but when it is given a spin with rosemary glace, sofrito and pickled cherries...well, you see where the fusiony bits come in. That it was falling off the bone was especially appreciated as our waiter had forgotten to replace my knife. I happily mushed away at it with my fork. It was one of the very best I have had anywhere.

I will also be dreaming after my Mom's choice--the House-Smoked Turkey enchiladas, something of a gauntlet toss on her part, as, having lived in San Diego for over twenty years, she cooks fine Mexican herself. And yet, oooh la. Local corn tortillas filled with a spinach and artichoke goo, topped with Monterey Jack and a tamarind mole sauce? Thump-thump goes my heart.

You might be able to see why Vinology inspires loyalty. So much so that the regulars have wine lockers to store their best bottles. I may not be in town frequently enough to need one of those but I will certainly be back the next time I am in Ann Arbor or A2 as the locals call it. 

A newbie (for me) to add to the favorites list is the Jolly Pumpkin, also smack downtown. That we had to wait for a table at nearly 2:30pm says much of its popularity. 

I loved the boho cool vibe and funky decor (not to mention the flattering low-lighting) but fell head over heels for the truffle fries with fresh rosemary and house-made mayo. Thank you! 

That plus a more-user friendly Shiraz and I could have been good to go but thank goodness I listened to our adorable waiter's suggestion (if you have never waited tables, just take this one bit of advice, always listen to the waiter, they know) and dived into a delightfully sloppy Porchetta sandwich. The slow-roasted garlic and herb-infused pork shoulder was perfectly moist but the spinach gave it a bit of snap and the salsa verde aioli (never thought you would see those words together, did you?) as well as the fennel sauerkraut gave it a that sweet/salty tang that was just absolutely fine.  

There is a brewmaster on hand pumping out house-made ales if that is your sort of thing. I can imagine that this miight not be the place to be on a brawlsey Saturday evening in summer or when the University of Michigan has a home game on but otherwise, go forth and munch wisely.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Treasure Mart

The only true "must" about my recent visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan was to spend time with my Mom and Sister as well as to meet both my Mom's new boyfriend and dog (I was crazy for both of them). And that is what I did and I tell you, it was wonderful. They spoiled me rotten with love sweet love.

But I do have my favorites that I try to get to each time when I am in that neck of the woods. Perhaps on the top of that list is Treasure Mart in the Kerrytown neighborhood. Like the Dêpot-Ventes in France that I so adore, it is somewhere between junk shop and antique store. You never, ever know what you are going to find but as the stuffed antelope at the door proclaims, you are "welcome" to dig in and dig around. Supposedly, there are folks that come every single day to Treasure Mart and that doesn't surprise me a bit as the merchandise is priced to turn over as quickly as possible.

We actually headed there the morning after my arrival (which probably is telling, isn't it?) and in my jet-lagged haziness, I let a few interesting pieces slip through my fingers. 

I was in a decidedly old-fashioned country mood and was delighted by the piles of gilded china, the doilies and this enormous apple-blossom covered set.

I most certainly would have brought home any one (or all three!) of these fine ships for Remi. The least expensive was only $75 (in France it could easily be triple that) and its imperfections made it all the more charming.

My favorite piece that first day was this wonderful oak rocker. There are quite a few homes in the area in the Arts and Crafts architectural style and I know that this beauty must have happily resided in one for decades. Why anyone would part with it I'll never know and found it to be a steal at $200.

Yes, the comfort of country and the reminders of my childhood. Different times. I was very drawn to all of the quilts on offer as well. When I was not quite seven years old, my Mom piled my Sister and I into the car and drove us far out into the country in Ohio to a little red schoolhouse that had been made into a home. The woman living there made quilts for a living and we were both allowed to choose one for the Victorian home that we were soon going to move to in Mason, Michigan. I used mine until it completely and utterly shredded apart. I even kept the shreds for years later. No surprise then that I looked longingly at the slightly torn quilt in the window, especially at only $30! 

Lest you think that there are only the golden oldies at Treasure Mart, I present to you this brand new Ralph Lauren duvet and a faboo brass lamp that could easily go for ten times the price on One King's Lane. I couldn't help but think that several of my designer friends would appreciate it.

So what did make it home with me this trip? Not much actually as I was in too great of need of practical Americana like jeans that actually fit to bring back as much as usual. But on our second visit I couldn't resist two woodcuts for $1, I bought my Mom and I each silly sunglasses for the same price (mine are rather Bonoesque, don't you think?), a chunky stone and semi-precious necklace that will be great next summer and what became known as the "chickateapot" because...well, it made me happy!

More from Ann Arbor to follow soon. Here is to a great week ahead! 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Airport Rule #1

Not to worry, this is not another series, just a post and a relatively short one at that as there is only one rule: Dress nicely and be polite. Now, I am sure that my fine readers (and ps. I had the chance on my trip to meet some folks who complimented me on you all) know this and put it to practice. But we can all use a little reminder now and again. 

Did I get upgraded, or surclassé on my flight home? I sure did. When I heard "Will Ms. Heather Robinson please come to the desk for a new boarding card?" I thought a silent "Yippee!" but kept quiet and did my best Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday imitation as I casually approached. True, at the initial check-in, I had begun with "Good Evening," concluded with "Thank you so very much" and avoided making any kind of desperate, wishful comments upon learning that Economy was full. As for being polite, well, as someone who worked in luxury hotels in my younger days, I know that 85% of people are nervous when they travel. And nerves do not a polite person make. Those other 15% are like a ray of sunshine. So, Keep Calm and Carry On. 

The attendant had already given me a quick once-over immediately at check-in and was well aware that I was not wearing sparkly bunny slippers on my feet (as was one of my fellow passengers, I kid you not) nor a velour tracksuit marked with embroidery across the derrière. I have to say that I am at a bit of a loss as to when and how it became the norm to wear such attire in such a situation. Now, don't get me wrong, I am (a little wistfully) not of the hat and gloves generation but really, I have respect both for myself and for the act of travelling itself, which is nothing short of miraculous. Black stretchy jeans will do just fine in a pinch along with a simple sweater (ok, and my beloved pashmina didn't hurt). And do you really need to carry on your bed pillow? Methinks not. 

Call me a little punchy with the jet-lag...I am! But at the time I was très, très contente to sip a 2006 Saint-Estèphe as I zoomed over the Atlantic as well as to have been given an adorable little gray patent vanity kit (you have to love that term) with socks, moisturizer, etc. (pps. On long haul flights when I am in economy, I always look to snag an untouched one from Business on the way out--brushing one's teeth does wonders for jet-lag). True, that feeling was nothing compared to the real happiness that surged up into my throat as I descended the escalator in Marseille and Remi and Ben slid into view. 

I had a truly wonderful trip. Nothing but great moments. And just so much love from my Mom and Sister. It was like being swaddled in the finest silk every single day. Except better. As usual, I took far too many photos as I really think Ann Arbor is a fantastic town so I will be doing a bunch of short posts (please don't feel pressured to leave comments!) once I get unpacked and there is slightly less fog on the brain. It feels good to go, good to come back. I love travelling.