Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

90 minutes in paris

We arrived back at Paris Charles deGaulle Airport (CDG) at 3 p.m. to accommodate a travel writer colleague who had a late afternoon flight to Berlin. Writers invited on press trips often piggyback other destinations and stories... sort of a "while you're in the neighborhood" philosophy.

Since the remaining three writers had morning flights back to New York, San Francisco and Cleveland (moi!) we had a very welcome chunk of free time on the first really pleasant and sunny day we've seen this week. One writer elected to spend it chilling at the hotel until our 8 p.m. dinner reservation.

Having spent a week in Paris apartment with my daughter a few years ago, I know the city fairly well so hoped to catch the RER train from the airport into the city. I didn't want to spend an arm and leg for such a quick visit, but I couldn't be so close to one of my favorite cities without a least trying to reconnect. Since we were at the , Regular free buses shuttled continuous between the various hotels including our Airport Marriott and the airport with its ower level train station.

Another writer, Tom, and I set off at 4 p.m. and at the train station met our first glitch . The ticket dispensing machines refused to honor any of our credit cards and would take only coins for tickets. And of course there was no change machine.

After trying one machine after another we concluded that it was system wide problem. A long line of luggage laden visitors wound around the concourse to speak to two harried clerks. Neither of us spoke French so stopping a passerby probably wasn't a good option and we knew if we were to stand in line our Paris time would be gone. By then 45 minutes had elapsed.

We watched as a young women ahead of us at a ticket machine inserted her MasterCard and got her ticket in return. She overheard me say "I guess Paris just isn't in the cards" and turned to ask, in perfect English, if she could help. Delighted, we explained our problem. She watched as the same machine with a MasterCard icon rejected our cards again. "Why don't I just use my card and you can pay me for the tickets?" she suggested.

I could have hugged her. Two roundtrip tickets into the city & back totaled 16.80 euros (about $25) and soon we were on our way. She was headed to Munich, 90 minutes away, and we would have just about that amount of time in Paris.

The tickets work like those in London and other cities. Insert it upon entering the turnstile, pass through and reclaim it where it pops out the other side. We didn't want to have to go through the ticket purchase hassle another time so we guarded them with our lives.

Exiting the train at the central St.Michel we had several choices of underground walkways to take. I chose the Notre Dame one since Tom hadn't been to Paris in awhile and seeing the famous cathedral upon emerging from the subway is such a nice welcome. Like a lot of subway stations in the City of Light several flights of stairs interspersed with escalators were required to reach the surface. People with luggage exit at the Gare de Nord station with its elevators and connections to other lines in the vast Paris metro system.

Paris trains and subways are wonderfully efficient but I don't consider them a very good way to get from the airport into the city. Usually it's 1 to 2 a.m.Cleveland time when the overnight flight arrives into the Paris morning and most people, including me, are a little spaced out, to say the least. I usually take a bus into the city since they drop passengers off at centrally located spots within walking distance of a cab ride to central hotels. Last time though, my daughter had arranged a private car to take us directly to the apartment we'd rented. It cost about twice as much as the train, but was worth it to us since we didn't know where we were going and having to negotiate flights and flights of stairs with luggage is not my idea of a good time.

Tom and I enjoyed a lovely couple of sunny hours in Paris, stopped at a sidewalk cafe, shopped the stalls along the Seine and got a good dose of the French joie de vivre -- the very special, joyful French style engagement with life that is so energizing on a visit here. We got back to the hotel just in time to meet our colleague and enjoy our last bottle of Sancerre with a dinner of foie gras and asparagus.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Gardens in center of France

The marshes surrounding the small city of Bourges formed a barrier that protected early Celt and later Roman settlements from invasion. The vast marshlands inspired fear and superstition since those who entered would often become lost and would never be seen again.

But by the 8th century the Jesuit sisters of Charity had figured out that by digging channels through the marshes to the river, the land would drain and reveal a rich soil perfect for gardens. The church had the first gardens and fed the poor from their plots. After the French Revolution they became public and ordinary people began to garden there.

Today more than 1,500 privately owned garden plots bisected by canals surround the city. It's a place filled with birdsong with weeping willows bowing to the water, abundant flowers and early crops. The long April to October growing season means industrious growers can often have two crops.

It's been especially rainy in recent weeks here in central France so the canals leading to the two rivers that have their confluence in the middle of La Marais (marsh in French) are muddy and a walk down the gravel road through the gardens is puddled.

But the Marais teams with activity during our Thursday visit. School groups armed with nets catch frogs and insects and gather around their instructors to learn about them as gardeners till their plots, pull weeds and harvest asparagus, lettuces, radishes and other early spring crops.

The presence of wild calla lilies growing along canals and ditches reveals a climate somewhat milder than ours in Northeast Ohio.

Summers in Bourges mean concerts by an orchestra on a floating barge with bleachers all around. People bring picnics or have their dinner at one of the two restaurants at the edge of the Marais - sited where they are so their chefs can easily harvest produce for dinner.

Like spring everywhere, it's a season of new life. We see a swan on its nest, lots of mallard ducks and other water birds including a Moor Hen followed by its young in the water.

Gardens, which are passed down through families, are entered through gates - some of them dripping with roses or other flowers. Some gardens can be reached only by water and flat bottomed watercraft line the river banks for poling down canals. Garden cottages range from aging shacks to sweet little cottages, although amenities are limited by a lack of electricity.

Our guide, Barbara, an expat from Florida who is married to a French cardiologist, tells us the garden cottages hid Resistance fighters during World War 2.

It's a fascinating place that will be revisited in an upcoming Sunday Travel story about Bourges.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

goats of loire

Perhaps it's the country girl in my heritage, but I loved our visit to a Loire farm where goat cheese was made.

The city folks among our group of writers stuck their noses in the barn where Magali Legras and her husband keep their goats, and chose to view the operation from outside. The smell put them off. But I didn't find it bad at all.

It was almost milking time when we arrived and the 150 Alpine goats put up quite a ruckus as we came into the barn because they knew it was time. They are milked twice a day and produce 500 liters of milk each day from which the couple makes goat cheese.

Goats must give birth each year in order to produce milk, so the couple breeds goats as well, keeping a half dozen billy goats for that purpose. The goat family lines are kept separate so there's no interbreeding. To better do that, the goats are named and wear collars with their names. The Universe family of goats might be named Earth,Venus, Mars, Moon, while the Flower family might have names such as Daisy, Aster, Iris.

Baby boy goats are sold for meat when they are a few days old, although some females always are kept for future milk producers. They are bottle fed.

Magali showed us the sweetest little boy goat. We all wanted to take him home. He nuzzled her when she picked him up and even smelled sweet.

The goats live on a diet of hay that must be grown in the Loire area for it to keep its official AOC designation. More about that when I get back and do my Wednesday Food story on the subject of goat cheese.

When it's time for milking, they are herded down a ramp single file and into a stall on a circular milking platform that holds six goats and revolves. Suction cups are attached to each udder (two of them). Meanwhile Magali throws kibble into a feeding trough and the goats gobble it down as their milk is pumped out into sterile tubes which carry it into the cheese making area. Most goats are milked dry in one revolution of the platform. Older goats, which give more milk, might need two revolutions. As one goat finishes, it goes down an exit ramp as Magali guides another one into the vacated milking stall.

The goats actually seem to know what they are doing and are quite good natured about the process. Magali says it take about two weeks to train a goat for milking and that most of them know their names.

But like people, she said, some are smarter than others.

stained glass & asparagus season in Loire

We visited a stained glass maker in Chartres before heading out to Orleans where we took a cooking class. Although the glass maker has been doing it for 30 some years, he doesn't repair glass for the cathedral, since all work there must be donated. Instead, he does it for a living. He showed us the process which has changed little over the centuries and it was very much like the way Mark at the Stained Glass Center in Willoughby does his work. Readers may recall my Easter Sunday story about him.

The countryside of Loire is lovely, with gently rolling hills checkerboarded by farms - many of them growing grapes and raising goats for goat cheese. Roadsides are red with delicate wild poppies and we've passed many farm stands selling asparagus.

Although the Loire Valley is known for its chateaux, we aren't visiting them on this trip with the French National Tourist Office.But we've seen plenty of them - and magnificent churches -peaking out from forest clearings on hillsides. At some chateaux the owners rent out rooms and suites and even offer camping spots to help meet their expenses. And expenses here, just like at home, are ipmacted by the ever increasing cost of fuel. My math is pathetic, but gas here is more than 1.50 euros a liter which is more than $6 a gallon

A tour of ORLEANS brought great insight into the life and times of Jean of Arc, the local heroine who saved France from the English and is portrayed all over town. At a local cooking school, I learned techniques and a great recipe for stuffed chicken legs and a clever way to cook asparagus that assures the stems and the tops are evenly done, despite their different textures. After learning how to do it ourselves we all sat down to eat dinner served with good Loire wines. Sancerre is the one most Americians would know. I'll share the asparagus technique in an upcoming food story.

Among the many French practices worth emulating is a little portable computer the server brings to the table when patrons pay the bill. The server slides the credit card through it and issues the copy to sign and the receipt right then and there. So often in the states the transaction seems to break down right at the point of giving money to pay for the purchase, The cashier is perhaps concluding other transactions and the server has to wait. So the servers takes care of another customer in the meantime. Meanwhile, the original customer is left twiddling her thumbs. The French have the right idea.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

chartres 1 hour from paris

Chartres, a little more than an hour by train from Paris, is a popular day trip from the city. It's also become a bedroom community for the city, since it's in the countryside surrounded by the wheat fields that inspire the nickname "breadbasket of France" so many people choose to live here and commute into the city

Since Chartres dates from the 5th century and earlier, auto traffic in the past 50 years had created a nightmare of congestion and traffic in the 40,000- person city. But a huge project in recent years transformed the downtown with three levels of underground parking, opening up the historic city center surrounding the famous Chartres Cathedral and maintaining the charm of the riverside lower city.

The Eure River is no long navigable, but because it connects to the Seine it provided the long ago Vikings an easy avenue for their raides. Walls built to protect the city were in place until World War 2 when Germans who held the city blew them up as the fled before the advancement of Patton's army.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres was built between the 11th and 15th century, mostly to house a relic reputed to be the robe worn by May when she gave birth to Jesus. A remnant of it still is on display in what is the third largest Cathedral in the world.
Its famed stained glass windows were taken down and hidden away in World War 2 and so have been preserved. They're beautiful but huge, so those coming here to study them would be well advised to bring binoculars.
Like other cathedrals, they were made to tell Bible stories to a populace that was largely illiterate. The cathedral, which is almost constantly be renovated in one place or another, is shown above. Right now its dramatic rose window is covered with scaffolding for its renovation.

The town, especially the area around the cathedral is reputed to be place of power, where Druids lived before the time of Christ. A labyrinth in the cathedral, used by early Christians who negotiated on their knees as they prayed, is the destination for modern day spiritualists.

Many of them are,however, disappointed to find rows of chairs assembled over the labyrinth most of the time. It is cleared of chairs only on Fridays. A part of the ancient labyrinth, covered by chairs for those attending religious services, is shown above.

loire like home

It's been as cool here as early spring in Ohio, with a good dose of rain. Its hasnt dampened the experience though. Flew over on Continental's new flight with a pilot as my seatmate. He was set to relieve the pilot in charge, which FAA rules require after 8 hours. But the heaqdwinds were with us , and the flight took just 7 hours and 15 minutes so he had a free 24 hours in Paris. I learned all sorts of interesting things about aircraft which Ill share soon.

Flying BusinessFirst on Continental was an exercise in fine dining. Had four choices for entree, a cheese course, free flowing wine and more.

Whirlwind trip so far, Chartres Cathedral is even more beautiful than its photos and its lit with a variety of colors and moving features at night with music in the background. Another 20 landmarks also are lit. Its truly spectacular.

Had a little trouble logging on so this is late. And now I need to depart in 20 minutes and get breakfast before that. Plus packing. So this will be a quck one. Here are some pictures of dinner and more.

will write more soon

Thursday, May 22, 2008

sorry guys

Being a newbie at this blogging thing, I thought I could no longer blog when the Pillsbury Bake-Off icon was removed from the News-Herald's Web site.

But I got the answer to readers' questions about where to find the nuts and the peanut butter cookie dough in the $1 million winning recipe. You asked me back in April when I was writing about the Bake-Off so I hope you are checking back for the answers

Get the nuts at Marc's and sometimes at Office Max. (I erred earlier when I said Staples).
The peanut butter cookie dough can be found at "some Giant Eagle stores", according to Pillsbury.

I'll be putting on my travel hat Sunday and flying to Paris on the new overnight Continental flight from Cleveland. I've also just learned how to add my photos to this blog, so stay tuned here for a whirlwind visit of the Loire region of France. It all depends, of course, on my being able to access the internet from the hotels where my press group will be staying - a different one every night. The stories I'll be gathering there will appear in upcoming Sunday travel sections to help you plan your own visits to France, now that we can get there on the no-fuss flights from Cleveland.

Let me hear your comments at the end of this blog about the France trip or whatever I write about here. Your feedback helps me include things that interest you.