La Soirée…

I felt beautiful for the soirée. I love the dress, which is the closest I’ve ever come to wearing a work of art. For the first time in my life I was daring a genuine pair of stiletto heels and all of my accessories were just right. I’d even had my hair done , braving the gossipy Saturday morning crowd of venetian grandmothers waiting for their blow dry as I tried to explain what I wanted in a very broken Italian to a woman who was used to back combing and litres of hairspray. In the end, the stylist did a stupendous job, creating a chignon that showed off the daring décollté of my dress, while keeping it all loose and informal.

Taking the elevator from our room I espied another Frenchman in a tuxedo. Assuming that he was also guest for the soirée, I introduced myself and soon met his wife, Dorothy. Before heading out together, we stopped on the dock to take photos and that is when I realized that no matter how great I felt that evening, in reality, I looked like an over stuffed sausage. I’m only now digesting my disappointment…

BUT, I didn’t let it taint our evening.  Mr French looked fantastic and we were in Venice! We set off on quite the adventure finding our way through the maze of this ancient republic; over age worn cobbled stones, beyond a lively square, left along a canal for 20 meters, and over a bridge. The sight of 2 smiling girls in regional costume standing by a dock let us know we’d arrived.  Not being in a water taxi, we crossed yet another bridge, passed a water well and stopped for a photo op by a couple of guards dressed as moors before going in. Rose petals littered the ground of a square, falling from a vase adorned water well that dominated the stone-lined courtyard while a stringed quartet plays light music and tuxedo clad gentlemen twirled ice cubes short glasses filled with amber red Spritzer cocktails while luxuriously dressed ladies sipped fragile pink Bellinis from champagne flutes.

The women were in long dresses, silken dark, flowing fabrics, jewels catching the evening light. There is a private garden with blooming roses, lion sculptures and a gate to the canal. A man comes over, introducing himself as the brother-in-law of our hosts and our table captain. I had never heard of a table captain before and quickly learned that it is his job to introduce the folks who’d be spending the evening together to ensure a good time is had by all. We chat and he is soon off to identify the rest of our table’s guests for the evening. Hands are clapped and we are beckoned back to the courtyard for a Commedia dell’arte performance with a human horse that is cut in two.

It is time to climb the stone, candlelit stairs to the sumptuous piano nobile where Murano glass chadeliers crown the ornate room like a series of tiaras. Spouses are separated as seats are assigned, food is served, speeches are made. I am the only one in the room with a camera and I am not the least bit perturbed by this fact.  We are supposed be used to this, taking it all in our stride; blasé. But I am not and I don’t ever want to be. I am living an incredible moment and I savour it. The French man to my left is catching up with an old classmate. I introduce myself to the gentleman to my right and quickly understand that he is an Italian Count and our second host for the evening. It is his Palazzo we are dining in and I have been seated next to him because this is a French crowd, yet he is more comfortable speaking English.

Course after course is served as this man, who has been the oldest son of the oldest son for 1000 years, shares some of his family history, pointing out the trompe l’oeil portrait of his ancestor the doge above the door way, explaining that his family is one of the 5 remaining families of the 12 (apostles) founders of the Venetian republic. I listen intently, then respond in kind, answering his questions about life in California. Just before dessert we are interrupted by an operatic treat; three performers from La Fenice opera house serenading us with traditional gondolier songs and arias. Bravo!

I think everyone should have Grandpa's portrait above the doorway.

After the high culture there was some low brow fun in the gondola garage that the Count has quite recently transformed into uno disco where we shook it until the wee hours of the morning, returning to our hotel room over the Grand Canal just as the sun started to stir and the vaporettos to whir for the day….




The water changes everything. Light is refracted, reflections magnified. Movement becomes vertical, as well as horizontal. Sound is absorbed. Winding, narrow alley ways create architectural canyons, with a peacefully comforting uniformity. The regular drum of passing cars is replaced by irregular bursts of sound. You are not in a city or in the country, you are somewhere else. Somewhere wonderful.

Mr French and I arrived early Friday morning. “Its much more dramatic arriving by train,’ he informed me. I nodded naively, having only ever arrived by bus after a short flight from Paris. We grabbed our bags and headed out the door to the quais in the pouring rain. It was the first time that either of us would be arriving by water taxi. The rain stopped and chipper captain greeted us from his vintage, wood trimmed motor boat, shooing us from the front deck into the back of the boat where the roof top slid open, allowing us to stand and enjoy the breathtaking view.

Our chauffeur had a brief errand to run on the island of Murano, and asked if we’d mind a detour. We were thrilled with the free ride and our unexpected stop at a boatyard. Pulling up to the dock of the hotel was luxurious experience and within minutes we were ready to hit the town.

First stop, the Punta della Dogana, the large warehouse space that houses the phenominal contempory art collection of François Pineault (CEO of the Gucci Group, now known as Kering). Getting there would require a long walk or a quick trip by vaporetto. Knowning Mr French and his inability to get from point A to point B without stopping at every other church, museum, and shop window and knowing Venise, with its plethora of churches, museums, and shop windows, I insisted on boating it. We didn’t have tickets, or any idea how to acquire tickets, so we just walked on and hoped for the best. Turns out, local authorities rarely check for tickets and we could have gotten free rides our entire trip.

The museum was closed until June 1. So we hopped on another vaporetto to check out the Fortuny Museum, featuring the fabrics of the Art Deco artist. The museum was closed until June 1. We walked a few blocks back towards the canal when the Plazzo Grassi, the second Pineault museum WAS open. A huge palazzo that belonged to the Fiat family before being acquired by the Gucci gang, the Grassi is gorgeous. For the first time ever, the museum was displaying the work of a single artist; Rudolf Stingel. The artist commissioned a ginormour oriental carpet and used to cover all the walls and floor of the entire palace. The effect was mesmerizing, and like it or not, it was art.

Our quest for art had left us both famished, which made us both a tad grumpy and we got lost looking for our next destination. Just when we started to bicker we came upon a square with a restaurant that had several tables under large white parasols. Mr French grumbled that it looked like a horrid tourist trap. While my stomach was doing sumersaults of joy. We had stumbled upon Aquapazza, one of my top favorite restaurants on the planet. Mr French was somewhat skeptical of my enthusiasm, but was quickly seduced by the fries courgete flowers with a light-as-air ricotta stuffing, while the linguine with lobster was just as good I had remembered. Italians are not known for their dessert, and coming from Paris, we often head straight for the espresso, but this was Aquapazza, where they have fruit gelati served in their original shells;  from chestnuts to walnuts, medlars to strawberries, it is all simply divine and served with a frost encrusted bottle of house-made limoncello.

We spent the rest of the afternoon meandering the medieval labyrinth of the city, ending our evening over bellinis at the mythic, historic, Harrry’s Bar.

Rock the Casbah

Hakkasan photo from their website (no lighting!!!)

Actually, its London Calling, but that was just obvious, I couldn’t, simply could not do that to you. Last Friday Mr French and I headed to Londontown, which explains why there was no Friday@Flore. It was Friday@LaGare for me. The freezing cold gare, that I was very happy to leave as we stepped into the train.

Taking the Eurostar usually makes me feel like Alice in Wonderland, as I fall into the iconic, diesel infused Paris metro, and resurface to bustling streets with black cabs, red buses and traffic going the WRONG way. Yes, all my British friends, if you have to post signage at every single street corner in your city, telling pedestrians which way to look before crossing, well, its safe to say, your way is slightly twisted.

This trip was even more surreal, as we stayed in the station, taking the glass elevator directly to the lobby of the monumental St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. A Victorian fantasy, this hotel is a gothic jewel, with stunning public spaces and exceptional service, unfortunately the rooms are your standard international business travel fare and I did not fall in love with the neighborhood, although, to be perfectly fair, I didn’t give it much of a chance as we checked-in and immediately hopped a cab for the familiar (to me) Mayfair district.

It was 21h and we had reservations at Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, which I had found rather by accident. I had really wanted to go to the Indian restaurant, Amaya, my favorite restaurant in London, and one of my all time top ten on planet earth, but Mr French had pleaded for something different, and I complied, because really, it is bizarre that a chick who dedicates her life to exploring the planet is obsessed with returning to the same addresses time after time!

Before getting in the cab, though, we had a problem. The lock on Mr French’s suitcase, the one that is integrated into the luggage, had jammed. We’d had to call security and get a rather large, knowledgeable gentleman to break it open for us. Over the weekend we also had problems accessing the gym and I left a rather large package behind. The hotel staff know us rather better than they should and really earned their tips! While helping me postpone our reservations (because of the locked lock) the concierge assured me I’d made the right choice in trying Hakkasan, it was the best Chinese in the city.

I had wanted a restaurant that served very spicy cuisine, like I can not get in Paris, and attracted the super cool London crowd. You know, the places with dramatic lighting and intriguing spaces that you see in movies with stars like Hugh Grant and Rene Zellweger. Hakkasan fit the bill. The food was spicy and elegant, and perfectly prepared. So well prepared, in fact, that they’ve earned a Michelin star. We had dishes with lily bulbs and morning glory greens, and whole chilis and all kinds of favorites I can not get at home. The pièce de resistance was the beautifully presented dessert of a dozen different exotic fresh fruits which satisfied my relentless sweet tooth without giving my any guilt.

The crowd was worth watching, too. Young folk covered in studs, men who were better coiffed than I have ever managed, girls with heels so high they teetered and had to grab the railing for support, co-workers getting smashingly drunk over an extravagant TGIF and nervous mid-life couples out on a first date. It was dinner and a show!


vf en bas….

I spent five years of my life in Montréal and each year there would be snow mobile related deaths, mostly because a bunch of drunken yahoos had done something stupid. It didn’t inspire me. But its “the thing to do” in Lapland, so we signed up for a night ride to “chase” the Aura Borealis.

Our guide was Sami, one of the silent, rather expressionless Finns we’d gotten used to spending time with. He picked us up at our hotel, saying “chasing Aura tour?” We hailed him with an enthusiastic “Yes!!!” He nodded, then guided us to the SUV with hand signals. At the ski center he had a memorized speech, telling us the safety rules and he didn’t even crack a smile when he made the joke, “Yes, because we have a lot of traffic here.”

To drive a snow mobile in Finland, you must have a valid driver’s license. Mr French’s offspring are adults, but they’re Parisians and have never had the need for a license, which meant that I would be driving a snow mobile. Given my track record with adventure travel (hospitals have been involved) we were all somewhat nervous about this minor detail, but hopefully optimistic since I’d had my fill of misadventure with the renegade dog sled the day before.

Kitted up, we were soon off. It was breathtaking riding through the deserted forest, across frozen swamp land and up winding hills. The sky was black, but there was enough ambient light to see all around and it felt like we had reached the end of the world. At the hill top, Sami cut his engine and said, “Break”. We got off our bikes and and then he motioned to towards the sky and said drily, “and this is what visitors call the Aura Borealis.”

In order to see the Aura Borealis, there must be clear skis in a land known for snow clouds. And you must just happen to be out in -25° temps at the exact moment the skies light up. Let me make that clear. You have to be outside. You will not see the Aura Borealis if you are snuggled up warmly before the fire in your cabin.

After one night in Lapland we’d realized what a challenge we had before us, so we were astounded, thrilled and completely amazed that we saw the Northern Lights on our first night out. The effect was faint, but grand, none the less. And then in an instant, it was gone. We hopped back on our bikes and followed Sami down the hill. My arms started to get tired and the snow mobile started to pull and despite an incredibly slow speed of under 20km I lost control of the machine and “SCHPLAM!!!” drove us into a tree, the right ski lodged into its truck. Misadventure #2. Wahoo!!! Fortunately I had been driving so slowly that no one was hurt, not even the mobile.

Sami returned to rescue us, his first and primary concern being our safety and well being. His only concern for the bike was to get it back down from the tree trunk and to get us back on the trail.

He's building this fire on a bed of snow!!!

Just minutes later we arrived at a teepee where Sami proceeded to create kindling for a fire he was about to build, delicately shaving fine slivers with an unwieldly axe. It was an impressive show, particularly given the lack of light, or warmth. The fire roaring and tea served, we (well, I) started prying into his life with annoying questions, like “Where do you go on holidays?” He has been to Italy, and didn’t have much to say about it, but he really lit up when he explained that he had spent the previous summer building the teepee we were standing in.

Lapland is an absolute wonderland.

J’ai passé 5 ans de ma vie à Montréal et chaque hiver, sans faute il y avait des accidents fatals avec des motoneiges. Ces décès étaient souvent liées à l’effet de l’alcool sur des vrais cons. Ce qui explique pourquoi cette activité ne m’a jamais tenté. Mais en Finland c’est juste un mode de transport et la meilleure option pour chasser les Aurore Boreal. On est parti.

Notre guide était Sami, un type du coin, donc silencieux et stoïque. Il est venu nous chercher à l’hôtel avec les trois mots, “Chasing Aura tour?” On était enthousiaste avec nos “oui!!!”s. Il a fait un signe de tête et nous a guidé vers son 4×4 avec des signes. A la station de ski il nous a fait un discours mémorisé. Il n’a même pas souri en racontant sa blague, “Eh oui, il y a beaucoup de circulation sur les routes ici.”

Les Finlandais exige un permit de conduire de toute conducteur de motoneige. Les enfants French n’en ont pas, donc je n’avais pas de choix, je devais conduire. Étant donné mon expérience en sport extrême (les hôpitaux y jouaient un rôle) on n’était pas ravi de cette situation, mais l’aventure en traîneaux de chien nous a donné un peu de confiance. Surement on n’aura pas deux mésaventures à raconter!

Bien équiper, on est parti. C’était époustouflant le sentiment de vitesse dans un forêt nocturne, à travers un marais gelé et vers une colline sur un chemin sinueux. Il faisait nuit, mais il avait assez de lumière pour voir le but du monde. En haut de la colline on est descendu des motoneiges à l’ordre de Sami. Il a fait signe vers le ciel, “et ça, c’est ce qu’on appel l’Aurore Boréal.”

Pour voir l’Aurore Boréal il faut un ciel dégagé dans un pays connu pour ses tempêtes de neige. Il faut être dehors là où il fait souvent -20 au moment précis que les lumières arrivent. Après notre première nuit en Laponie on avait compris jusqu’au quel point c’était difficile, alors, on ne venait pas de notre chance de les voir à la première sortie. C’était un petit effet, mais beau. Un moment plus tard c’était disparu. On est retourné aux motoneiges pour continuer notre parcours.

Au bout d’un quart d’heure mes bras étaient fatigués et j’avais du mal à contrôler cette lourde machine, et puis il y avait un virage et je ne voyais plus qu’un arbre devant mes yeux. J’ai eu juste le temps d’avertir Mlle French avant de nous planter dans l’arbre, un ski du motoneige bien implanté dans le tronc d’arbre. Quelques minutes plus tard Sami s’est rendu compte qu’on n’était plus derrière lui. Il est revenu avec une question sur ses lèvres, “Vous allez bien? Personne n’est blessé?” J’étais très contente de répondre que non, personne n’était blessée. Il est descendu de son engin et s’est mis à libérer mon motoneige de son arbre.

Quelques minutes plus tard on était dans un tipi est Sami était à genoux avec son hache pour préparer un feu. C’était impressionnante de voir les fines lames de bois qu’il découpait avec son énorme outil, dans un froid paralysant, sans lumière. Sans d’autre occupation je me suis mis à lui poser des questions innervants. Comme, par exemple, “Vous allez où pour vos vacances?” Il a cité un séjour en Italie, mais il s’est illuminé quand il a parlé de l’été dernière quand il a construit l’énorme tipi (5 mètres de haut) qui nous hébergeait.

La Laponie c’est vraiment un pays des merveilles

Supper time, Lapland style

When people first heard that we went to Lapland for the holidays they usually asked where Lapland is. Then they’d ask if it wasn’t just a tad cold up there and then they’d ask why anyone would choose Lapland as a holiday destination.

Now that we are back there is on question on everyone’s lips, “How was the food? What do Laplanders eat?” They are undoubtedly expecting me to reply something totally bizarre, like whale blubber or reindeer fat. And perhaps they do. But mostly the food was quite normal and utterly delicious.

Our first morning there we spent the entire walk to the dining hall asking ourselves the same question. We were greeted with pickled herring. Oh joy. There was also creamed herring and lox and several other pickled bits. The Russians in the house were thrilled. My Dad would have been clapping his hands in gastronomic joy. I was less thrilled. My French family was happy when the spotted the basket of soft boiled eggs, while I was over the moon with the plain yougurt-like cream and fresh marmalade.

Reindeer Tapas

For lunch, our hotel only offered soup with only one option each day. Once it was a rather odd; broth with hot dog slices and another day they tried to get creative with chicken in coconut milk. We were very excited the day we got to have lunch at Saariselka the neighboring ski resort where we accidental stumbled into Teerenpesa, a gastro-pub with absolutely gorgeous food. That is where I discovered the fresh trout and we tried reindeer paté.

Being the land of no sun with temps below zero for months on end, the locals are very much into fire and open flames, so grilled proteins are quite popular. The proteins may be fresh from the hunt, like elk or wild boar.  Or they may be farm raised, like the reindeer, but my favorites were the wild salmon from the Arctic Sea and the trout from the local rivers. Also from the Arctic Sea came some enormous, absolutely succulent King Crab legs that I feasted on nightly. There were potatoes with every meal with a fair variety of surprising succulent root vegetables, but green vegetables were scarce.

We spent one afternoon at a local grocery store where we picked up some reindeer flavoured potato chips and a mojito flavoured beer. Beer is popular in Lapland, getting 4 times the self space of the meats and nearly as much coverage as the entire produce section. Laplanders feed their dogs refrigerated dog foods, which amazed me. The gumball machines were filled with polished rocks and the souvenir department was stacked with rat poisons. Not sure what that was about…

And since we were out shopping we decided to look into the souvenirs. There were some really gorgeous knives (starting at 20€) and lots of reindeer skins (90€). The inventors of Angry Birds are Finnish, so there were lots of AB toys and stuff. There were also woolen mittens (8€) that looked liked they’d been designed for the three little kittens and great ski hats. There was some great Finnish design, like the Aalto vase (medium size 85€) from Ittala and lots of Marimekko textiles. There were also some weird looking dolls (12€) and odd, electric colored furs and leather goods with plenty of ethnic looking stuff that was not ethnic at all. I had not gone to Lapland for the shopping so I was not at all disappoint to return home empty handed, but well fed.

Teerenpesa / Saariselantie 5 / Saariselka, Finland


Quand on disait qu’on allait en Laponie nos amis nous demadaient où c’était La Laponie. Ensuite ils voulaient savoir s’il n’allait pas faire un peu froid et finalement, pourquoi des gens, qui semblaient être normals auriez envie de partir en Laponie en plein hiver.

Depuis notre retour ils ont tous la même question ; on mange quoi en Laponie ? Certainement, ils attendaient une liste d’ingrédients bizarroïdes, comme le lard de baleine ou le gras de renne.  Ils mangent ses plats, sans doute, mais moi, j’ai adoré la cuisine finlandaise.

Le premier matin on s’est pointé vers la salle à manger, la même question sur nos lèvres. En arrivant au buffet j’ai vu du hareng mariné. Chouette. Mes yeux bien ouverts par le parfum de ce plat j’ai remarqué le saumon fumé, des cornichons et plein d’autres poissons conservés. Les hôtes russes étaient aux anges. Mon père aura chanté sa joie, il adore toutes ce plats de l’Europe de l’est. Moi un peu moins. La famille French était contente du panier rempli d’oeufs à la coque et j’étais soulagée de trouver une espèce d’yogourt et un confit d’agrumes fait maison.

Au déjeuner, il y avait une soup du jour, du pain, eh ben, du pain. Une fois la recette était un peu étrange ; un bouillon avec des tranches de Knacki. Un autre jour ils ont essayé de faire gastronomique avec une soupe de poulet au lait de coco. Ce n’était pas mal, mais on était quand même très heureux de déjeuner à Saariselka, la station de ski où on a découvert un bistrot avec une cuisine gastronomique. On a dégusté la truite qui venait du coin et un pâté de rennes. Le bonheur.

La Laponie est un pays sans soleil où le thermostat reste en dessus 0 pour la majorité de l’année. Les habitants, ils aiment leur feu. Ils s’en servent pour se réchauffer et pour faire des grillades extraordinaires. Ils grillent tout qui leur passe sous la main ; le gibier comme elan ou sanglier, les poissons comme la truite ou le saumon sauvage de la mer arctique et les animaux d’élevage, comme le renne. J’ai craqué pour le King Crab, aussi de la mer arctique. Il y avait des pommes de terre et plusieurs racines, comme le panais, mais moins de légumes vertes.

Après notre déjeuner au bistrot, nous avons fait un petit détour au supermarché où on a trouvé des chips parfumé au renne fumé et une bière mojito. Ils aiment bien leur bière les Lapons, il y a avait quatre fois plus de place pour la bière que pour les viandes. Le rayon était aussi grand que le rayon primeur. La bouffe pour les chiens était au frigo, les machines pour le chewing gum étaient remplis de petits cailloux et le panneau “souvenirs” pointé vers les raticides. On n’était pas à Paris.

Puisqu’on faisait un petit shopping c’était le moment de visiter les boutiques de souvenirs. Il y avait de beaux couteaux artisanaux (à partir de 20€) et des peaux de rennes somptueux (90€). Les cerveaux derrière Angry Birds sont finlandais, donc il y avait pas mal de trucs en plastique avec leurs oiseaux fachés. Des moufles stylés (8€) en laine blanche et brodée rouge, bleu, vert pour un look chic traditionnel avec des bonnets de ski assortis. Il y avait le design finlandais, comme le vase Aalto (85€ moyen) de Ittala et beaucoup de tissu Marimekko dans toutes ses états ; cabas, tabliers, serviettes, etc. Il faut dire que les poupées étaient étranges et il y avait des fourrures en couleurs électriques, la maroquinerie et des produits ethniques sans en avoir l’air. J’étais contente de quitter la Laponie avec mes photos et de bonnes souvenirs.

Teerenpesa / Saariselantie 5 / Saariselka, Finland

On Donner! On Blixen!

Each morning we found ourselves a bit sleepy and slightly disoriented despite quiet evenings spent by the fireside. After a few nights of this we realized that it is probably not the healthiest thing to sleep with a roaring fire blazing indoors through out the night and the mornings got easier when we were burning the oxygen instead of the flames.

This stunning revelation came to me one morning at breakfast when I was so exhausted I had had to excuse myself from the table to take a brief nap in the bar. Through my lethargy I was very content knowing that today we would be going to a reindeer farm and taking a sleigh ride. Nothing extreme and no risk of running into a tree. I could relax.

P, the reindeer farm owner came to pick us up promptly at 9h30, dressed something like one of Santa’s elves. He introduced himself and explained that he is Sami, a member of the only indigenous people in Europe and his colorful garb was their traditional wear. P took us to his farm, explaining the life histories of the residents of each home that we passed along the way, pointing out the woman who was crazy about Christmas, the 92 year old man who lived alone with the nearest neighbor 6kmm away and the the empty house that had once been occupied by a woman. “She met a man, moved south.” He explained dryly.

The farm was picture perfect red with a glowing amber lantern and a pen of reindeer. We each slipped into our individual sleigh, snuggled beneath the reindeer skins and we were off on a long, leisurely stroll through the village of 20 souls; most of them reindeer farmers, with some school teachers and a doctor.

Sami cuisine

Warm shoes

After our ride P invited us into his teepee where there was a raging fire waiting to warm our toes and long-handled frying pans waiting for some traditional crêpe making. The snack was as unexpected as it was delicious and we sat cooking our treats while P entertained us with traditional Sami songs and explained the history of his outfit which was a family heirloom. We learned that the more silver a man has on his belt, the wealthier he is and single Sami women know if he is available, or not, depending on how he wears his hat. He laughed at us, pointing at our high tech, expensive shoes bearing names like North Face and Salomon.

He explained that modern shoes left his feet freezing cold, which is why he prefers his reindeer skin elf shoes, complete with up-turned pointy toes.

He claimed they were warm up until -40°, at which point he had to stuff a bit of dry straw inside for extra insulation. I was tempted to buy one of the 2 other pairs he had for sell, but at 200€ a pair, they were a bit beyond my house slipper budget and simply could not see wearing them on the street in France. Not even in the Alps, not even at -40°.

Well rested, happily fed and full of healthy, fresh oxygenated air, that afternoon we were ready to go cross country skiing. Because night falls at 14h30, Lapland is prepared for night sports, and the cross country ski trails are well groomed and fully lit. Our waitress at the hotel, who was a Russian ski instructor had told us it was an easy 6 km trek to a nearby café. We were excited to head out. The Frenches are downhill skiers, I’m a Californian. Long story short, we made it 2.5 km before turning back to the hotel and settling for a drink at the bar.

On avait du mal à se réveiller les matins malgré nos soirées calme autour du feu dans la cabine. En réfléchissant, on s’est rendu compte que ce n’était pas le bon plan, s’endormir avec un incendie dans la cheminée. Le feu, ça brule l’oxygène mais nous aussi, on en a besoin. De plus il emit un petit surplus de CO2, pas trop apprécié pas le corps humain. Une fois compris, c’allait mieux. Beaucoup mieux.

On a compris notre mauvais calcul un matin au petit déj quand j’étais fatiguée, tellement fatiguée que j’ai dû m’excuser de la table pour prendre une petite sieste au bar. Chic, n’est-ce pas, la femme au bar à 9h du matin avant le soleil ? Ça me soulageait de savoir qu’on allait vister une ferme de reins* aujourd’hui. Il n’y aura pas de sport extrême et je ne risquais pas de m’enfoncer dans un arbre. Enfin, pas aujourd’hui.

P, le propriétaire de la ferme des reins* est venu nous chercher habillé un peu comme un des lutins de Santa à 9h30 pile. Il s’est présenté et il nous a expliqué qu’il est Sami, membre d’un des plus grands groupes indigènes en Europe et il était habillé dans les vêtements traditionnels de son peuple. On était 20km de sa ferme et pendant tout le trajet il nous a parlé des habitants des maisons qu’on passait, la femme qui adore le Noël avec toutes ses décos, le monsieur de 92 qui habite toujours seule et la maison vide, abandonnée par une femme qui a rencontré un homme et qui s’est barrée pour le sud.

La ferme était exactement comme on en rêve : jolie en bois peint rouge, des lampes ambres suspendues dans les arbres avec des bois d’un rein* accroché au-dessous du portail. Il nous a offert chacun son traineau et on était partis dans le village de vingt âmes : des fermiers, quelques enseignantes et un médecin.

Après notre balade, P nous a invité dans son tipi où un feu brûlait pour nous chauffer les pieds. Il y avait aussi des casseroles avec des manches d’un mètre pour faire des crêpes traditionnel. Un goûter inattendu et succulent. On est resté autour du feu, à cuisiner nos crêpes pendant P nous a chanté des chants Sami et nous a expliqué l’importance de ses habits. On a appris qu’un homme montre sa richesse en mettant des chaînes d’argent sur sa ceinture et les vieilles filles peuvent identifier un célibataire suivant la façon dont il arrange son bonnet. Il s’est moqué de nous en parlant de nos chausseurs hi-tech marqué Columbia ou Salomon, en expliquant que ces chausseurs sont inutiles contre un grand froid et que ses pantoufles en peau de renne lui protègeaient jusqu’au moins -40°. En dessus de -40° il y filait un peu de foin et ses pattes restaient bien au chaud pour la journée.

P est un artisan qui fabrique ses pantoufles à la main, utilisant 6 morceaux de renne pour chaque pied. Ils sont magnifiques ! J’étais tenté de m’offrir une paire mais à 200€ ça dépasse mon budget chausson et je ne peux pas m’imaginer de les mettre en public en France. Même pas aux Alpes, même pas en -40°. Dommage, en San Francisco j’aurais créé une nouvelle mode !

Bien reposé, nous poumons remplis d’un bon air oxygène, on a suivi notre ballade à la ferme avec une randonnée de ski de fond. Notre serveuse à l’hôtel, une prof de ski russe, nous a conseillé la balade en nous rassurant qu’il y avait un café qui servait un bon chocolat chaud sur la piste. Il ne fallait faire que 6km pour y arriver. On a fait demi tour après 2,5, content de rentre pour se réchauffer au bar.

* pendant notre voyage, malgré toute ma recherche j’ai confondu l’orthographe de rennes pour reins. C’est une chose qui arrive quand on est immigrante et cela fait marré mon entourage. J’espère que vous appréciez mon accent !

Iditarod, here we come…

Our first morning we awoke, slightly disoriented but excited about the day ahead; we were going dog sledding!

Arriving at Husky & Co the chipper Hungarian guide told us to put on one of their ski suits.

“But I already have this quite swank, rather high tech ski suit on,” desisted Mr French, “is that really necessary?”

Lapland chic

Brake lessons at Husky & Co

She informed us that it was to go on top of our ski suits and that, while not required by law, it was highly recommended; they would not be held responsible for popsiclized tourists. Not even the chic French ones. Especially not the chic French ones. In a rare moment of total authority I put on my evil eye and told him to stop wingeing, he was wearing the suit.

We waddled out to a display sled where Miss Husky explained the brake system. This foot operating peddle is the only thing resembling control you will have over your team, she pointed out. Oh, and don’t pass one another, she warned, the dogs are vicious and likely to get into a fight.

She wasn’t joking. They were at one another’s throats in their impatience to be off and running, blood was being drawn. Mlle French and I had agreed to share a sled. She’d be standing in the back, operating the brakes, I’d sit in the sled and take photos. The dogs were untied and we were OFF!!! It was exhilarating as we tore through the winter wonderscape, the teams so far from one another that we felt we were the only souls in the forest.

And then we turned a corner and there was a steep slope, with a tunnel. Inside the tunnel we could see Mr French and Junior. Their sled was at a complete stand still, but we weren’t slowing down. “Brake” I cried to Mlle French, “brake!!!” She had forgotten about the no passing ruled and we whizzed by as a guide on a snow mobile yelled out a rather stern reminder that there would be no passing.

A few moments later I heard Mlle yell back at the guide, “Excuse me sir, but the brakes seem to be stuck. How do I un-stick the brakes?” I didn’t hear the air born reply, but we seemed to be moving at a reasonable pace. Minutes later the pace got faster and faster and I was once again screaming at Mlle to “BRAKE!!! Brake, Mlle!!! Damn it, what the F- is the matter with you? Do you not understand the concept CO-MUN-NI-CATE??? If you won’t brake, at least answer…” My mouth froze in mid sentence. Mlle was not there!!!

I was alone on a sled being pulled by 6 werewolfs claiming to be Alaskan Huskies and Mlle had vanished into thin air! Instead of the seasonal sugar plums, I suddenly had visions of broken coccyx bones and hospital visits dancing through my head. And then my mind wandered back to the fact that I was alone on a renegade dog sled.

At the same moment I noticed our guide trying to chase me (and my dogs) with his snow mobile. It didn’t occur to me that that was not normal. A snow mobile should be able to easily out run a team of dogs. Unless it was broken. Which it was, and which explains why, just as he got close enough to pull an Indiana Jones and leap from the speeding vehicle onto my sled, he missed. Not by much. Only 6 cm, but he missed nonetheless.

By now my sled was flying along the trail like something pushed by Calvin, only I was no Hobbes and all those wreckless bumps, followed by crash landings on the compacted snow were starting to hurt.  I decided it was time to jump into action and I set to screaming “HELP” “HELP” to Miss Husky in the lead snow mobile. Shouting through barking dogs, roaring snow mobiles. Not exactly a useful tactic. So I tried to twist back around and control the brake with my arms, only my camera bag was strapped around my leg, so I couldn’t move much and you need your full body weight to stop a team of lunatic dogs, plus there was the little issue of the wooden frame which bashed my head with each bump.

I turned back and braced myself into the sled waiting for my destiny to unfold. Ahead, the lead snow mobile had finally noticed something was a miss and had stopped in mid-trail, the two dog sled teams behind her had stopped as well. The trail being only wide enough for one sled, my dogs clipped the stopped sled as they raced by, my sled being forced up on to the slopes. The driver of the sled we were passing started screaming hysterically about my rude, wreckless behaviour before switching mid-yell into utter panic over the fate of my missing driver. “The girl? Where is the girl?”

The narrow trail slowed us down enough for Miss Husky and Co to grasp the lead and tie it to a tree, stopping the dogs in their tracks at the same time the second guide arrived in the broken snow mobile. “La fille, elle ou la fille?” I yelled above the din. No response. Three tries later I realized I was shouting in French and he had no idea what I was blathering on about. I tried again in English.

“I have no idea where she is, she fell off. I’m going to go now and see if she’s injured.”

Before I could jump from my now stationary sled and onto his pathetically slow snow mobile Mr French and Junior French dashed up with Mlle safely on their sled, saving the day like a true Prince Charming, instead of your garden variety Frog.

ps to her credit Mlle got right back on the sled and drove on…


Le premier matin, mal réveillé et un peu fatigué, on était quand même excité pour la journée ; on partait en randonnée en traineau de chiens !!!

Lors de notre arrivée au Husky&Co une hongroise souriante nous a accueilli en nous demandant de mettre un combi de ski.

<<Non, mais, j’ai déjà un combi de ski et c’est très bien d’ailleurs. Je ne vais pas en mettre un autre.>> a pleurniché M French. J’ai mis “ma” regarde, la regarde que j’utilse quand une parisienne essaie à me double à la caisse chez Franprix. Il a mis le combi.

On s’est dandiné vers le traineau de démonstation ou la hongroise nous a expliqué l’importance de friens. <<C’est le seul contrôle que vous auriez sur les chiens,>> elle a expliqué. <<Et il ne faut surtout pas doubler un autre traineau, ses chiens sont surexcités et ils attaquent facilement.>>

Surexcités ? On peut le dire. On voyait du sang sur le col d’un des chiens. J’allais partager un traineau avec Mlle French. Elle allait conduire et moi, j’allais m’installer tranquilement dans le traineau pour prendre des photos. Monsieur le guide a détaché nos chiens et ils se sont déchainés ! C’était superbe, ce sentiment de liberté et vitesse dans un forêt loin du monde.

On a pris un coin, la piste descendait vers un tunnel où il y avait M French et Junior French arrêtés dans leur traineau, mais nous, on ne ralentissait pas. <<Frein!!>> j’ai crié, <<Frein!!!>> Apparement Mlle avait oublié le règle qu’on ne double pas. M le guide le connaissait bien et s’était mis à nous rappeler en hurlant de son motoneige.

notre guide

Quelques instants plus tard j’entends Mlle qui crie, << Excuse me sir, but the brakes seem to be stuck. How do I un-stick the brakes?>> Je n’ai pas entendu la réponse, mais je n’etais pas inquiet, on avait une allure normale. Puis on a commencé à accélérer et accélérer. Je trouvait notre vitesse un peu exagérée, inquiétante. J’ai recommencé à crier <<Frien. Frein !!!!>> mais on allait de plus en plus vite. <<Non, mais frein, Mlle, frein! Non, mais, putain de mer…>> Je me suis retournée en gueulant et j’ai perdu mes mots. Mlle n’était plus sur le traineau. Elle est tombée du traineau.  J’imaginais des visites aux urgences, ses jambes cassées, du sang sur la neige pure. J’étais horrifiée. Et puis je me suis rendu compte que j’étais seule sur un traineau de chiens, sans accès aux freins et sans assistance.

Cette réalisation m’est venue au même moment qu’une vision de M le Guide qui essayait à me rattraper avec son motoneige. Réfléchissons, un motoneige qui a du mal à rattraper un traineau de chien. C’est pas normal, ça. Il y avait un pépin avec sa motoneige, ce qui explique pourquoi il a raté le traineau quand il a essayé me sauver en faisant un bond comme si il se prenait pour Indiana Jones. Mais j’ai déjà passé des vacances avec Indy cette année et je savais que ce n’était pas lui.

Maintenant le traineau s’envolait dans toutes les sens, comme un dessin de Calvin et Hobbes. Sauf, moi je ne suis pas un tigre en peluche et ça faisait mal aux os ! C’était le temps d’agir. Je me suis mis à hurler <<Help ! Heeeeelllllp>> avec un accent sur le HELL, en espérant attraper l’attention de la hongroise qui était sur un motoneige, elle aussi. Les chiens qui aboient, les motoneiges à fond les caisses. Se mettre à hurler n’était pas une stratégie efficace. Je me suis retournée vers le frein, mais il faut tout le poids du corps pour arrêter une équipe d’Alaskan Huskies en plein action et je n’avait qu’un bras. Comme la cerise sur le gâteau, je prennais des coups de traineau sur la tête avec chaque saut.

J’ai repris ma place dans le traineau, attendant mon destin. Enfin, la hongroise s’est réveillée à mon sort. Elle a arrêté son motoneige sur la piste, bloquant les deux traîneaux devant moi. La piste devait être trop étroit pour doubler un autre traineau, mais ça ne gênait pas mes chiens plus que ça. Ils ont continué, doublant une suisse qui s’était mis à brailler, <<Mais vous êtes folles, c’est danger…. oh mon dieu, la fille elle est où la fille ? Vous avez perdu la fille !>>

Être deux traineau, c’est-à-dire 12 chiens sur un petit chemin a ralenti mes chiens. La hongroise les a attaché à un arbre au moment où M le Guide arrive sur son motoneige. <<La fille, elle est où la fille?>> j’hurle. Il ne repond pas. Il n’agit pas. C’est normal, je crie en français et il ne sait même pas que je lui hurle.

Le fameux tunnel avec un traineau arrêté

Je repose ma question en anglais. Il n’a aucune idée où elle est, ni si elle est blessée Il a l’intention de retourner voir maintenant qu’ils ont arrêté mes leurs chiens. L’hystérie m’approche, mais avant de succomber, je vois M French avec Junior et Mlle sur son traineau. Saine et sauf. Mon Frog s’est vraiment comporté comme un Prince Charmant.

ps Mlle est très forte et elle a repris le traineau immédiatement. Bravo !!!

St Malo

photo from the restaurant's webpage

Two weekends ago we went to Cancale, and I raved about our trip, and it was fantastic, but then life happened and I start writing about more timely stuff, like the Paris Photo Festival, which I really encourage you to go see, which means I got side tracked and didn’t fully finish talking about our trip, which is fine, because, well, do you really care about every little thing we saw and tasted and experienced? I hope not, for your sake! On the other hand, I do like food an awful lot and we had some great meals on this trip that I really want to remember so I can book places for our next trip, so today, I am indulging myself and making a list of my St Malo favorite foods. First, the fish that got away.

On our first trip to St Malo, Mr French gave the a list of three restaurants he’d heard were absolutely stupendous and he told me to pick one and book it. I did, and the meal is still one of the best meals we have ever shared (more on that in 30 seconds). Number 3 on the list no longer exist, but number 2 is Le Chalut, a very traditional looking fish restaurant with a chef who once worked at Ledoyen and the Ritz. Michelin, Pudlowski and Mr French’s locally based colleague all rave about this place, so this weekend Mr French was determined to go. Unfortunately he did not share this ambition with me and he is not exactly the ‘plan in advance’ kind of traveler, so we arrived for lunch 20 minutes after the kitchen had closed. which means we absolutely MUST return to St Malo.

Another reason we have to go back is the dinner we had at St Placide, a truly exceptional address well off the beaten path and outside the city’s ramparts. This is the memorable meal I mentioned above. We didn’t make it there this trip. We ate there 3 years ago and we still remember much of the menu in detail. The sea bass with Tonka beans and the lobster with vanilla and ginger are now our benchmarks for inventive cuisine without too much fuss. And the dessert was full of surprises with pop rocks causing flavorful explosions in our mouths, leaving us giggling like school girls. Seeing a 50-something, French, ex-Rugby man giggle like a school girl, well, Mastercard could use the moment in their ad campaigns.

Not every meal can be an orgy of gastronomy. En fin, not for a size 10 body that will be returning to Paris to be surrounded by size 2 friends. A bit of restraint was in order. A simple meal in Brittany means one of two things; fresh oysters by the sea, or crêpes. Cancale has the oyster beds so crêpes were in order. There may be 200 crêperies intra-murs in St Malo. How does one choose? At 15h in the afternoon, you just go to the first place with an open kitchen, so we fell into An Delenn. Having lived in Montréal for 5 years, I was terribly amused by the Québec flag bunting the owner had chosen for his decor. The menu feature maple syrup, blueberries from Lac St Jean, and I suspect they’re working on adding poutine at some point in the near future. In the meantime, the crêpes were truly artisanal and we watched in amazement as he peeled apples for new orders, beat the eggs, galette by galette and flipped some of the best crêpes we’ve ever had.

On the way home that afternoon, Mr French was driving peacefully along when the woman next to him, arms flinging, screeched insanely, “Beurre Bordier, OH MY GOD, this is where beurre Bordier is from.” I had just seen the Cheese Shop run by perhaps the most famous butter churner in all of France. And it must be love, because instead of turning on me and laying into me for my insanity, Mr French calmly found a parking spot and I got to visit butter mecca. I strolled through the place bouncing on the balls of my feet and clapping my hands with joy, even though I couldn’t buy the butter because it would never have survived the trip to Paris and I can get it at my local cheese shop 6 days a week, anyway. A butter geek. Who knew? Yes, we suspected, but nobody really knew for sure until now.

At Bordier they had a flier for L’Ecole du Goût de St Malo. The cooking school that very well be our next excuse for visiting St Malo and the inspiration for another post like this one!
Le Chalut / 8 r. de la Corne-de-Cerf  / 02 99 56 71 58

Le St Placide /6 Place du Poncel / 02 99 81 70 73

An Delenn / 4 rue de la Harpe / 02 99 40 16 53



Cancale can cook

Our stay in Cancale was an absolute dream, with unexpected great weather and absolute calm. The weather, of course, was pure luck, but the peace and tranquility was thanks to  Les Maisons de Bricourt. We stayed at their Cottage Les Rimains, which is delightfully far from the maddening crowd, over looking the bay. Each of the four rooms has paned windows which frame a spectacular view of the bay, reminding us that nature is the ultimate masterpiece.

I was a bit surprised that no one offered to take our bags upstairs. This is a Relais et Châteaux, after all, but it was the only hitch of our entire stay and not being a whimp, it was not a big deal, but being a reporter, I feel the need to mention it in case it would bother others. After getting over the spectacular view, we saw that there were treats waiting for us; home baked biscuits, fresh apples, exotic dried fruits and Chouchen, a local honey-based liqueur.

Every morning we’d rise and head through the garden, beyond the white picket gate to begin our run on the GR34, water lapping the foot of the cliff.

Breakfasts were spectacular, whether served in our room with country ham and local cheese, or enjoyed after a run in the town square at the Grain de Vanille, Les Maisons de Bricourt’s salon de thé. Our taste buds were dancing with new discoveries; from the first bite of the morning’s pommé pastry to the bulgar powder we added to our yogurts.

On Saturday night we had reservations at LMdB’s Michelin starred restaurant, Le Coquillage, set in a 1930’s Chateau Richeux, several kilometers from the Cottage. We were familiar with the chef thanks to his spice shop in St Malo, which we had discovered on our last visit to the region. Being a spice loving, chili pepper-heat deprived Californian, I was an Olivier Roellinger fan before we took the five steps up to the front door.

A basket of fresh autumn squashes greeted us, with an invitation from the kitchen’s gardener to help ourselves. If I’d dared, they’d have been the perfect decoration for this week’s Thanksgiving dinner, but they were somewhat larger than my elegant little clutch, and I’m ultimately a fashion first kind of gal.

The place was literally jumping with staff and diners. Everyone happy and relaxed, fashion ranging from jeans and boyfriends sweaters to Chanel suits. The food phenomenal. We both chose the a St Jacques (sea scallop) tartare for our entrées and I’m still getting a thrill from the hit of crunch and flavour I’d get as bits of citrus exploded between my teeth. Mr French’s plat was abalone, fished from the bay by a certain Phillipe, while I spoiled myself with lobster grilled in the chateau’s fireplace.

There was an entire cart of mini pastries to choose from, most of them featuring excitingly fresh flavours and spices, with a few traditional rich offerings thrown in for good measure.

After the meal we curled up in leather club chairs, sipping herbal teas and digestifs, by a fireplace in the salon before being escorted “home” by our driver. Yes, we had a driver. The Chateau Richeux has 13 rooms and suites just above the dining rooms, but for guests staying further afield at LMdB’s cottage, they offer a free driving service for dinner, keeping the roads safe for everyone. Not a bad idea after an apéro, a bottle of wine and the digestifs!

We ended the night lulled to sleep by the melody of the sea. Sweet dreams afloat.

Les Maisons de Bricourt / +33 (0)2 99 89 64 76 |

Sally sells seashells

One year ago last week, Mr French and I PACSed, which is to say we entered into a civil union, which is hard to explain, but basically, we’re officially almost-married and since I’ll jump on any excuse to party, it seemed the perfect excuse for a celebration.

Given last month’s schedule with family obligations, holiday plans and business trips that kept us apart for nearly three weeks, the only real way to celebrate was to escape to a place where we could calmly sit and gaze lovingly into one another’s eyes sleep, preferably far from our children and their constant reminders of what pathetic old saps we are.

Remembering a good friend and his excitement over his 50th birthday weekend at Olivier Roellinger’s hotel and restaurant, Les Maisons de Bricourt, I called up the folks in Cancale. They had a cottage room available, perched on the cliffs over looking the oyster farms. Sounded good to me, so I booked.

The folks in Cancale? Can what? Canale is a charming little fishing village on the Brittany coast, but few people ever hear of it because it is forever in the shadow of its two imposing neighbors; St Malo and the Mont St Michel. This is too bad for all those who merely drive through on their way from one Heritage site to the next, but fantastic for those who stop and can have the place to themselves.

acres of oysters, slurp!!!

In France, the town is known for its oyster production with farms that stretch out for miles and miles into the bay. The beds disappear completely at high tide and then reappear., *poof*, like magic!

The GR 34, an idyllic hiking trail with stupendous views, follows the coast from here to St Malo and we could see the trail head tempting us with promises of health and well-being, like Ursula tempted Ariel. Instead of going for a walk, we opted for only restaurant still serving lunch, Au Vieux Safran. Tourist central with a line of restaurants, I was not expecting much, so I was floored by the perfection coming from the kitchen. My shrimp entrée melted on my palette with hits of bay and a touch of salt, the moules were beyond reproach, while my fries were crisp on the outside and utterly creamy on the inside. I didn’t try Mr French’s meal because he chose andouille, and I will never be French enough to enjoy ammoniac notes of urine with my pork products. When I complimented the waitress on the incredibly good freshness of our meal, she reminded me of Cancale’s privileged situation ‘entre terre et mer‘ and made it clear that there could be no excuse for bad food in this part of Brittany.

Properly fed, and no longer terrified that we’d return to a town with absolutely no dining options, we at last headed to the GR34, our silhouettes hand in hand, disappearing into the woods.

Au Vieux Safran / 2 Quai Gambetta / 02 99 89 92 42


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