Archive for June, 2011

June 26, 2011

Six Acres Of Goodness

by Anna

We have officially been at our farmstay in Couiza for one week. We have learned a lot of new things….like how to use a strimmer, how to drive a motorized lawnmower, how to stack firewood and how much hard work it takes to organically grow your own food! Aside from working to help maintain the six acres of land where Russell and Yvonne live, we have been given some pretty awesome jobs, like dog-sitting their four sweet boys, Remi, Ouzo, Whiskey and Pernod, helping to make gooseberry jam and vegetable curry, and the best job of all, sampling all of Yvonne’s marvelous cooking, which always incorporates the veggies, herbs and fruits that they grow here.

Our new home Wheat and wild poppies
Born to Mow! Farmer Johnny
Remi, Ouzo and Whiskey

It has definitely not been all work and no play, as Russell and Yvonne make sure that we have time to go explore the surrounding area. Russell has been an excellent tour guide on some great outings to Rennes-le-Chateau, a castle that sits on a nearby hilltop, Limoux, where the Tour de France will kick off on July 17th, Alet-les-Bains, another nearby town with natural springs where we filled up our water bottles, Esperaza for a flea market and to his friend Gerard’s in the town of Quillan to order firewood.

Our firewood masterpiece Our balcony with a view

On Friday, we took a day trip to Carcassonne. It was an amazing town with a fortress that was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997. It was truly a breathtaking site, and we spent the day exploring the fortified village and castle. We hopped on a train home that evening back to Couiza and met Russell and Yvonne’s friends, John and Caz, who were visiting from England for the weekend. They were all set up outside with cold beers and a box of wine, so needless to say, we had a really fun time getting to know them (and trying our best to decipher their accents!).

The fortress in Carcassonne
Cappuccino break Place Marcou

This weekend there has been a festival in Couiza to celebrate the Summer Solstice. We decided to check it out last night, and walked into town around 10:30pm. We had to get geared up in some light reflective vests to walk along the dark road to town, and thank goodness for our headlamps (I can’t believe I ever gave Johnny grief about registering for these!) which lit the way. The little park in town had been transformed with a stage, dance floor, lights strung in the trees and of course a bar and pop-up crepe stands. We listened to all of the French tunes and Lady Gaga songs that Johnny could handle and then trekked back down the road home. There must have been a zillion stars out, one of the benefits of being somewhere with barely any lights!, and we passed by a concert of frogs and toads in the river (it was honestly one of the loudest things we’d ever heard!).

Headlamps? Check.  Reflective vests?  Check.  Box-o-wine?  Check.

This morning Johnny and I rode bikes to Esperaza to visit the weekly Sunday market. There is actually a pretty big hippie culture in the surrounding hills, so the market is filled with all sorts of handmade jewelry, clothing and other “heady” things (aka: Johnny was in heaven).

Esperaza market

We’re now sitting out on the back lawn; it is pretty hot today and will stay light till 10pm. Other than a random thunder storm earlier in the week, the weather has been one of the best parts. Johnny and I sit outside with wine and beers every evening with Yvonne and Russell and watch the sun sink behind the hillside.  They have great stories of all the different people who have stayed with them through HelpX. They said at one point, they had six helpers here all at once, and their house was like the United Nations! One helper from New Zealand, named JJ, taught Russell his recipe for vegetable curry which we tried the other night, and it was DELICIOUS! It is definitely something we’ll be making again!

Russell cooking up some curry

Inspired by the local (and heated) games of Petanque in town, Yvonne found a Petanque set for us yesterday, and we played at sundown in the grass. Johnny is determined to get good enough to go join a game in town…..we’ll see.

Boule! Johnny working on his form

We’ll be here for one more week and a couple days, so we’ll be reporting back soon with more updates from Couiza.

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June 19, 2011

Greetings From The Farm

by Johnny

Well, we made it to our first farmstay in Couiza, France.  Although nobody we had met thus far on our trip, French or otherwise, had ever heard of the place, we are happy to report that it does exist…and is actually amazingly beautiful.  We’ll be writing much more about stay here with our awesome hosts Russell and Yvonne (and their four dogs), but here are a couple choice photos from our first couple of days.

Anna and Ouzo getting down and dirty
Peach trees everywhere Zucchini (Yvonne put some in our pasta sauce tonight)
Gooseberries (making some jam with Russell tomorrow) Feeling peachy!
Our new digs

There aren’t any pictures of yours truly yet, but here’s a video:

June 17, 2011

A Home Away From Home In Uzes

by Johnny

We said “au revoir” to Anna’s parents in Avignon and took a 45 minute bus to Uzès, a town known for, well, nothing really.  But that was exactly the point…one last week relaxing in the south of France before heading to our first farmstay.  Uzès is in the Languedoc region of France, which gives it extra cool points because that’s the name of the guy who makes Trey’s guitars.  We spent our days casually strolling around town, getting to know the workers at the local boulangeries and boucheries, going on hikes and bike rides, cooking in our apartment, and reading our books.  Here are some of the highlights from a great week:

On Tuesday we loaded up our packs and headed out for a day hike.  Uzès has a beautiful lookout point with forest views as far as the eyes can see, and we spotted a couple trails that looked like they’d be good for a stroll.  After making a couple wrong turns and clearing some brush with my trusty Swiss Army knife, Anna finally found the trail.  We hiked up and up and were finally rewarded with some great views of Uzès.

Johnny looking for some hiking trails Local wildlife
View back to Uzès

Uzès has a market day on Wednesday where tons of local vendors come to sell their goodies in the town’s main square, Place Aux Herbes.  We got up early to rub elbows with the locals and get our groceries for the next couple of days.  We visited the fruit guy, the veggie guy, the olive guy, the wine girl, the egg guy, the fish guy and the cheese guy.  Oh, and we picked up our daily baguette from the boulangerie located right downstairs from our apartment.  We actually share a stairwell with the bakery, and the smell of fresh baked pastries coming into our apartment all day long is heavenly and torturous at the same time.  We feasted for the rest of the week on all our market grub!

Anna in serious concentration mode Picking out our fish
Super heady eggs Market entertainment
Lunch is served (prosciutto, blue cheese, local goat cheese, cherries, olives, baguette)
Dinner is served (local lettuce, salmon with olive oil and lemon, white asparagus, rice, organic rosé wine)

On Friday we took a quick bus ride to one of the region’s most historic sites, the Pont du Gard, an ancient aqueduct bridge built by the Romans in the 1st century A.D.  The bridge provided an excellent backdrop for another picnic, some reading and a nap (all this cheese eating and wine drinking has been exhausting).

We had an amazing time in Uzès, and we both agree that we would definitely love to come back one day.  Here are a couple more scenes from a great week:

Hi there! Pre-dinner photo shoot in the apartment
Anna with some afternoon rosé in the apartment
Place Aux Herbes at dusk On top of the King’s Tower
Our favorite salad at Les Terriors (artichoke hearts, tapenade, tomatoes, jambon-wrapped goat cheese, lettuce, olives)

A little video to show the ambiance at a great restaurant we ate at, Le Bec a Vin:

Tomorrow we’re off to Couiza for three weeks for our first farmstay.  We can’t wait to meet our hosts, check out our new digs and get to work!  Oh, and Anna wrote her first of many guest blog entries for Quiksilver.  Check it out here.

June 15, 2011

Les Fun Facts Francais

by Anna

Having spent the last three and a half weeks in France, Johnny and I are beginning to feel “trés Français,” and we’ve been picking up some French fun facts and serious knowledge (or at least we like to think so) along the way. Before all of that knowledge leaks back out of our more-relaxed-than-usual brains, we thought we’d write some down and share them with you!

1. Hearing the song of the Cicadas, or “chant des Cigales,” is the first sign of summer. We heard the first sounds of the Cicadas at lunch last Friday in Eygalières. Everyone was très excité!

2. Three Cypress trees planted at an entrance to a winery or chateau means “welcome.”

3. Shutters are painted shades of blue throughout France because bees and flies hate the color. (And to think I thought it was just for looks!)

4. Grape vines thrive in rocky soil which allows for better drainage and heat absorption from the sun. The bigger the struggle, the larger the reward!

4. Geraniums are planted in window boxes to deter mosquitos. (Again, I thought this was purely decorative.)

5. In Provence and throughout France the name of the grape (ie: Chardonnay, Syrah, etc) is usually not used on the bottle because winemakers feel that the soil and landscape of the area, or the “terroir,” is what gives the wine its unique qualities and flavor. This actually makes it more difficult sometimes for French wines to sell in the U.S., because people are less likely to buy a bottle without the name of the grape identified.

6. Many of the towns were built on hilltops so that residents could see enemy troops approaching in case of invasion. (So glad they did this, because now they are so pretty to look at, and have great views!)

7. Napoleon the 1st ordered that Sycamore trees be planted along roads to towns so that soldiers could march in the shade….hence all of the beautifully tree-lined roads shaded by canopies of leaves throughout France.

8. Milk is typically sold on the aisle, not in the refrigerated section of the market (It took Johnny and I a few laps around the market to figure this out!).

9. When you order a rotisserie chicken, or “poulet rôti,” from the Boucherie, they will ask if you want it with or without juice. You want it “avec jus!”

Avec jus!

10. You thought there were only 3 steps to wine tasting? sniff, swirl and taste? No, no my friends. There are 6 steps to wine tasting (all 6 of which we practiced vehemently in the Luberon with Francois!):

1)   Tilt the glass almost horizontal and check the color.
–       red wine with a violet ring is less than 2 years old
–       red wine with a ruby red ring is 3-8 years old (the increasing years developing an orangish hue to the ruby color)
–       red wine with a brownish ring is more than 9 years old

2)   Smell the wine and identify the families (fruit, flowers, earth, animals, spices, etc).

3)   Swirl your glass and smell the wine again. More families will now be apparent.

4)   Check the legs. The more legs, the fuller and smoother the wine will be. The less legs, the drier and more crisp the wine will be. Legs are a result of the oil in the wine which comes from the seeds of the grape.  Plump, fat grapes resulting from cool weather will have big seeds and more oil in the wine. Smaller grapes with smaller seeds from hot weather will have less oil in the wine.

5)   Take a large mouthful of wine. Tilt your head forward and “slurp”, or aerate the wine in your mouth three times. Then “chew” it a couple times, so that it hits all of your tastebuds. Then swallow.

6)   Aerate your empty glass by swirling it and “doing the disco”. Then smell in the glass one last time. You will discover even more families with this final whiff.

June 12, 2011

A Week In Provence

by Johnny

We just wrapped up the most amazing week exploring the Provence region in the south of France.  Here’s a day-by-day account of the awesomeness:

Saturday
We bid farewell to Beaune and after three too-close-for-comfort train connections we arrived in a rain soaked Avignon, our home base for the next week.  Wait, I thought Provence was supposed to have 350 days of sunshine a year…what’s going on here?  Our cabbie told us that after two straight months of 30°C weather (whatever that means), the rain was a welcome sight.  Fair enough.  We navigated some damp cobblestoned streets to the apartment we rented, and thus began the awesomeness.  The apartment was absolutely incredible.  In the shadow of Avignon’s most famous site the Palais des Papes, we felt like we were living in medieval times (only with a fully-stocked kitchen and flushing toilets).  Since we were a little pooped from the travel day, we picked up some pasta, tomatoes, onions, garlic and all the €3 Cotes du Rhone wine we could find and whipped up an amazing dinner.

Home Sweet Home Not a bad view out the living room window
Cobblestoned lane out our front window Steady with that pour, Big Pete!

Sunday
We spent the entire day exploring Avignon, and after only a couple hours we knew we picked a great spot for a home base.  We started the day with a visit to Les Halles, the city’s covered market (and Johnny’s new happy place).  Picture your favorite farmers’ market.  Now picture your favorite farmers’ market on steroids…organic steroids, of course.  Now add a few groups of weathered Frenchmen drinking red wine, smoking cigarettes and playing cards at 9 a.m.  And voilà, that’s Les Halles.  Rows and rows of vendors selling seasonal produce, cheeses, breads, seafood, meat, wine, herbs and spices.  We picked up some more pasta, some pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and a fresh baguette for dinner that night.  In the afternoon we leisurely walked around the city’s narrow streets and discovered its numerous hidden squares.  We also walked up to Rocher Des Doms which had amazing views of the city and the Pont D’Avignon, its famous destroyed bridge.

Even the outside of Les Halles is green MMMMMMMMMMMMMM
One of Avignon’s million squares Avignon’s bridge to nowhere
Dinner courtesy of Les Halles

Monday
We took a 17-minute train south for a day trip to the city of Arles, famous for its Roman ruins and Vincent Van Gogh history.  We wandered around and saw one of the best Roman arenas outside of Italy as well as several of the sites that inspired Van Gogh’s most famous works.  Arles was a little rougher around the edges than Avignon, and even though it was a solid day trip, we were happy to come back to our apartment…especially since we had reservations at La Vache à Carreaux that night.  Literally half a block from our front door, the restaurant specializes in cheese and wine.  We had a fantastic charcuterie plate, jambon wrapped goat cheese, a goat cheese baked with honey, almonds and apricots, and a camembert melted with white wine and garlic.  Wowzers.

Tuesday
Tuesday, June 7, 2011 had been marked on the calendar for a while now.  This was the day we were taking an Avignon wine tour with Avignon Wine Tour (not just a clever name), and it was Anna and my Christmas gift to her parents.  We had been talking about it for months so I was feeling a little pressure, but our day lived up to the hype and then some.  Avignon Wine Tour has a different tour every day, and on this day we toured some towns and tasted some wines from the Luberon valley, southeast of Avignon.  We visited Menerbes, Bonnieux, Lourmarin and Cucuron (nowhere to be found in most guidebooks), and each one gave us a “oh my god, let’s move here” moment.  This wasn’t your typical “let’s go to Temecula and see how fast we can black out” wine tour.  Each tasting was preceded with tons of info about the region, soil, grapes, winegrower, etc. and followed by long walks through the towns and espresso breaks.  Our guide Francois was full of surprises, jokes and fun facts about the region, and he had a soundtrack full of killer French tunes and Puccini operas.  Lunch at Cafe de la Gare, a 100+ year old restaurant near the abandoned train station in Bonnieux, was definitely a highlight.  We had a buffet of all-you-can-eat regional specialties, pasta with veal and mushrooms and all-you-can-drink local wines for €14.  We all decided that we learned more and had the most fun on this day than any other wine tour we’d ever been on.  All in all, a perfect day.

The gang in Lourmarin
Our lunch spot in Bonnieux View from our lunch spot
These broom flowers smell mighty fine Pretty ladies in Menerbes
A perfect square in Cucuron shaded by sycamore trees

Wednesday and Thursday
We spent the next couple days in Avignon fully slipping into the Provencal lifestyle.  We’d sleep in, have long breakfasts, take more visits to Les Halles for picnic supplies, pop our heads into the city’s many Artisinal shops, have afternoon espresso breaks, cook dinner and end our days with ice cream in the main square.  I could get used to this.

 
Anna and Susan’s favorite store Espresso break
Pick an oil, any oil Dinner is served
Fou de FaFa – Home to Anna’s favorite salmon ever Nighttime at Place de L’Horloge

Friday
Well, we had such a good time on our wine tour on Tuesday that we ended up booking another one for Friday.  Imagine that.  This time we’d be touring the towns and tasting the wines of the Les Baux de Provence region.  It was another amazing day filled with good wine, good food, picturesque scenery and tons of laughs.  I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.  A perfect end to a perfect week in Provence.

The picture perfect garden at Domaine de Valdition
Springtime in Provence Vineyards at the foot of Les Alpilles
Barrel room built into the mountain at Chateau Romanin
Provencal smorgasbord Our lunch spot in Eygalières
View from Les Baux de Provence View of Les Baux de Provence
A break from wine tasting to sample the market at Eygalières
June 3, 2011

Beaunejour

by Johnny

Paris was absolutely incredible, but after five action-packed days we were ready to slow things down a bit.  We found what we were looking for at our next stop Beaune, a small wine town in France’s Burgundy region.  With no metro to hop on or historic landmarks to check off a list, we spent our days strolling the town’s ramparts and popping in and out of its countless wine shops.  We toured Beaune’s largest wine cellar, Patriarche Pere et Fils, which dates back to 1780 and has miles upon miles of underground caves.  Plus they let you “self-serve” tastings of 13 Burgundian wines for a whopping €10.  We got our money’s worth and then some.

The weather warmed up some on our last day in Beaune, so we decided to pack up a picnic, rent some bikes and head out into the vineyards.  The instant you leave town you’re immersed in lush vineyards as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the occasional chateau or castle.  We peddled through the tiny towns of Pommard and Volnay before finding a perfect picnic spot in Meursault.  Some red wine, a couple cheeses, a baguette and some cherries and we were ready for the ride back to Beaune.  Things were going along swimmingly until we got about 100 meters away from the bike rental shop (yes, I use the metric system now) and this tree came out from the middle of nowhere and ran smack into Anna’s mom’s nose.  Can you believe it?!  A helpful local called us a taxi, and Anna and her mom spent the next six hours (most of which waiting) at the hospital getting the wound cleaned up.  An emergency room visit and a four days supply of French pain killers cost us a grand total of €3.20, and even though Susan will spend the next couple days bandaged up like she just got a fresh nose job, it was nothing a couple more glasses of wine and some tasty beef bourguignon couldn’t fix.

Baguette + Blue Cheese + Prosciutto + Grand Crus = Taste Bud Explosion

Again we struck gold with our B&B, this time staying at Chez Marie.  Marie, her husband Yves and especially their baby Gaspar made our stay a memorable one.  Marie even gave Big Pete all that he could handle on the tennis court.  Every morning we had granola, homemade yogurt, baguettes, enormous croissants, homemade quince jam and fresh squeezed orange juice, and in the afternoons we would have wine in their garden surrounded by 300 year old stone walls.

Lunch break in the garden Big Pete and Little Gaspar

And now we’re off to Avignon in the Provence region for some sunny weather, market days and, you guessed it, more wine.

Susan’s Post-Tree Makeover
June 1, 2011

Paris, Je T Aime

by Anna

After a sad goodbye to Yves and Claudine at the Rennes train station, we made the two hour trip to Paris, city of love and light. I was so excited to meet up with my parents who had already been in the city for a few days attending the French Open at Roland Garros. Our hotel was nothing to write home about, but we were able to get our entire stay for free with our Starwood Points…not too shabby!

At dinner our first night we were quickly swept up in the magic of this enchanting city at the famous brasserie, La Coupole, where the likes of Picasso and Hemingway used to gather. A delicious meal and boisterously friendly waiters (who sent us rounds of champagne and chocolates on the house after discovering we were from California!) made for an unforgettable and perfect first evening in Paris.

 
My parents at La Coupole

Over the next four days we walked (what felt like) every inch of the city; from the Luxembourg Gardens to Musée D’Orsay and Musée Rodin over to Café du Marche on Rue Cler (where Johnny finally got his Chèvre salad that John & Melissa had been telling him about!), to the Eiffel Tower, up to Montemartre to Sacré Coeur and back down to the Louvre and Orangerie, along the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, to Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, around the Marais, and finally topped it all off with a trip to Versailles! Along the way we consumed many “Sandwiches Mixtes,” choquettes, Chèvre salads, pichets of Sancerre, baguettes and croissants. I also had my first tried-and-true Boeuf Bourguignon, which was delicious (and probably a little better than the Williams-Sonoma starter in a jar;)).

At the top of the Arc de Triomphe
Versailles
Sainte-Chapelle
Sancerre break

I have to say that my Dr. Scholl’s foot inserts for my Toms were probably one of the best investments I have ever made (even though I felt like I was 90-years-old when I bought them)! If Johnny and I don’t have awesomely-toned calves and bums by the end of this year, then there is something definitely wrong.

The Louvre
Notre Dame
Notre Dame

Highlights included a sunset walk down the Seine, the twinkling Eiffel Tower at dark, dinner at Le Coup Chou (Cameran & Jen, great rec!), a crêpe with caramel and salted butter, the Shakespeare & Company bookstore (I have always wanted to go!), strolling around the Marais and visiting Merci, an amazing store that I had heard about from our Quiksilver designers, and our final dinner at Les Papilles….arguably the best dinner of the trip, AND I could have lived in the tiny little restaurant/wine shop.

“The Thinker” at Musee Rodin
Dinner at Les Papilles

And finally….the beautiful Eiffel Tower at dusk (10pm).

Now it is off to Beaune in the Burgundy region for some wine tasting and a much slower pace….our feet will thank us:)
Au revoir!