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(Re)Discovering Rota, Spain & Costa Ballena {Arranque Roteño}

If someone would’ve told me years ago that Rota was worthy of being considered an international tourist destination, I probably would’ve looked at them with incredulity. It never occurred to me during all those years going to school on the Rota Naval Base that Rota was anything more than a little, sleepy agricultural and fishing town, situated in a strategic location for the Spanish and American military and the neighbour of my little Chipiona. Of course, I knew there was some sort of history there seeped in the stones of the old castle, in the walls of the main church, and in the rocks of the corrales. But from kindergarten through high school, I never really gave it much thought.

Rota for me, like for many other kids who grew up with me, was a beach playground and a place to go bar-hopping and disco dancing with friends. (Yes, I actually said disco.) And Costa Ballena, now a golf and residential resort, was where I used to hang out on a farm that belonged to family friends. A large portion of the land used for the golf course and the resort belonged to a cousin of the former King of Spain from the House of Orleans-Borbón. The rest of the land belonged to this family, who are our friends. On these grounds, I used to go horse-back riding, play in the hay stacks, and catch erizos de mar (sea urchins), which we would cut up right there on the beach and eat raw with a squirt of lemon juice.

After leaving Spain in 1997, it was many years before I came back to visit the area. In fact, the last time I went to our friends’ farm, I got lost because the roads had ‘changed on me’! Part of their farm remains the same as when I used to hop inside the pigsty to pet piglets and carefully feed the mommies or walk amongst the cows in the stable. I used to also feed the geese, although I was terrified of them because I knew their bites could hurt. And it was from this farm that I got my beloved little Marilyn, the bunny rabbit who was my pet until she grew into too much of a nuisance to have at home and we had to bring her back there. Our friend Francisco bit off the top of one of her ears so that we could tell her apart from the rest of the bunnies when I would visit. It turned out that the tiny act of cruelty had been unnecessary since little Marilyn used to come hopping to see me as soon as she heard my voice calling out her name. I don’t know what ended up happening to her.. or maybe it’s better than I don’t remember. But Luisa and Juan’s farm was my animal haven growing up. And Francisco’s older brothers were probably my brother’s first local friends.

So maybe you can imagine my astonishment when I now visit Rota and Costa Ballena and find an entirely different world from what my memory holds true. But just like when the Americans ‘landed’ in Spain and the Base was opened in 1953, the changes that come with this development progress have been more than positive for the Villa de Rota and Costa Ballena.

A few weekends ago, I had the privilege of rediscovering Rota at the hand of Descubre Rota, Rota’s tourism office. I was invited on a blog trip by my good friend Teresa, who pens the travel blog El Faro de la Jument and is one of the original members of the Andalucia Travel Bloggers Association.

I invite you to read on, to get acquainted (or reacquainted for some) with this lovely seaside town, maybe learn a few not-so-well-known facts, and discover Costa Ballena with me.

The Necropolis. Long before the Americans arrived in Rota, even before the Spanish Conquistadores landed in what is now the Dominican Republic to claim the discovery of the Americas for Spain, way long before then, there were other peoples who made this land their land. Who knows where they came from, maybe Northern Africa, or maybe they were the Phoenicians who sailed from the eastern most regions of the Mediterranean Sea and settled in the Iberian Peninsula. Whoever they were, they lived and died here. And some of them built a necropolis sometime during the Atlantic Bronze Age. During the construction of the Naval Base (which is actually a Spanish military base), the necropolis was discovered. It is the oldest archeological find in Rota; and because the the building of the Base had to continue, the artifacts were relocated. Some can now be seen at the Rota City Hall, inside the Castillo de Luna.

Corrales de Pesca. For a long time, it was thought that the Phoenicians – those savvy, commercial, sea-faring people –  had been the designers of the fishing corrals that shape the Rota and Chipiona coastline. But it seems like historians cannot agree on the origins of this sustainable form of fishing. So, although they are ancient, we cannot discern whether we should be thankful to the Phoenicians, the Romans, or the Moors for creating a way of life that continues to this day. Between Rota and Chipiona, there are eight corrales still in existence. To-day, they have been declared as a natural monument, the first in Andalusia; and hence they are now also protected. Many species of fish and mollusks live inside the walls and many others find their way in when the tide is high and get trapped when the tide recedes. The corrals were made with sandstone and lumachelle, a type of limestone containing fragments of shells and fossilized animals, which is commonly found in the area. It is not unusual to see house façades in Rota and Chipiona decorated with piedra ostionera, which is local name for the lumachelle. In fact, our former house in Chipiona has an outside zocalo made of piedra ostionera. One can learn more about this type of aqua-culture and visit the corrales by booking a guided tour with the tourism office of Rota.

Castillo de Luna. Rota’s more modern history is closely linked to that of Moorish Andalusia and the Christian Reconquest of Spain. Rota’s castle was first constructed on top of the remnants of a Moorish Ribat, which gave the town its Moorish name Rabeta Ruta. In 1297, after the Moors have been expelled from Spain, King Fernando IV of Castille grants all the lands between the Guadalquivir and the Guadalete rivers to Don Alfonso Pérez de Guzman, otherwise known as Guzman el Bueno, for his heroic efforts defending the city of Tarifa in the name of the Crown. These lands are comprised of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Chipiona, and Rota, where Guzman erects his castle and settles. A few years later, in 1303, Guzman’s daughter marries a Ponce de León and becomes part of the Spanish royal family. As her dowry, she is given the entire Villa de Rota, including of course the castle. In 1477, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, better known as the Reyes Católicos and as the unifiers of Spain, visited Andalusia and stayed at the Castillo de Luna. Since then, the castle has passed through various hands and has served various functions, from being the family seat of the Casa de Arcos, to being the summer home of the Marquis of San Marcial (who purchased it for 15,000 pesetas in 1909), to housing a school and hospital owned by the “Marquis of Villapesadilla” (who purchased it for 200,000 pesetas in 1943). In 1982, the religious community in charge of managing the school and the hospital abandons the building and it falls into disrepair. In 1999, after 11 years of renovation, it reopens it doors as the municipal palace. Today it houses the City Hall of Rota and the Office of Tourism. The Castillo de Luna can be visited by booking a guided tour at the tourism office inside.

Muralla. The remnants of the wall that surrounded the town at one time are still standing and visible facing the municipal marina, not too far from the central market, facing Calle Pasadilla. One could almost miss noticing the wall, if it weren’t for a small sign on the side facing the street. The town has planned to open a walking street alongside so it can be properly enjoyed. In the meantime, one can view it from behind a metal gate of sorts. But it’s definitely worth a stop and a look. The wall was constructed with lumechella, the same type of limestone used for the corrales and the many façades one sees in the town of Rota. The old wall used to separate the town and farms of Rota from the port and is thought to have been first constructed by the Tartessos. But it’s also been said that it could date from the 12th or 13th century making it Medieval and probably built by the Moors

Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora de la O. The day we visited Rota, there was a wedding at the Parish Church of Our Lady of the O. Roteños love to get married here, as it’s a very pretty venue; and the palmtree-lined plaza, which borders with one of the stone walls of the castle, creates a beautiful and romantic backdrop for any picture. One of my friends from high school got married here and I’ve been inside numerous times for various events. But I had never seen it from above as on this trip. One can visit the castle and walk on the rooftops, which provide an excellent vantage point of the church’s plaza, the Rota lighthouse, and the iridescent turquoise waters and white sand beaches. The construction of the parish church was finalised in 1537, during the reign of Emperor Charles I. The Ponce de León family paid for the building, which has been an icon of Rota ever since. Inside one can see various architectural styles ranging from Gothic, to Isabelline, to Plateresque and Baroque. Also inside, one can find the patron saint of Rota, Our Lady of the Rosary, whose festivities are celebrated in Rota in October.

Torre de la Merced. This tower is the only architectural remains of the old convent of La Merced, which had been founded by Don Rodrigo Ponce de León in the 17th century. With its brilliantly coloured blue and white tiles, it’s clearly visible from many parts of town and is another cherished symbol of Rota.

Las Playas & La Bandera Azul. Now that we’ve travelled through some of Rota’s most important history, let’s not kid ourselves. Most people today, including the Americans from the Base, come to enjoy the beautiful white sand beaches. Rota is surrounded by 16 long kilometers of beautiful beaches and turquoise waters that look like the Caribbean. From the urban beaches of El Rompidillo (old Garbage Beach to many of my friends) and la Costilla (the most famous and the one that brings back cherished adolescent memories) to the more ‘wild’ El Puntalillo and Punta Candor, which are protected by the pinewood forests, Rota’s coastline is a paradise for beach-goers, swimmers, and wind-surfers. Rota’s clean waters and excellent beaches are usually awarded every year la bandera azul (blue flag) by the European Foundation of Environmental Education. Beaches and marinas that offer a series of environmental conditions and whose infrastructure and installations meet certain standards are distinguished with this prestigious award. This year, Rota’s beaches and marina have been bestowed with a total of ten blue flags!

El Pinar. If there is one characteristic feature of the southern Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, from Spain to Portugal, it’s the forests of the pino piñonero, or the pine nut pine tree. These pine trees grow along the coast and protect the beaches and the sand dunes typical of the region. Rota’s pinar is part of the Natural Park of the Almadraba and has a unique micro-climate, offering a reprieve from the heat during the summer months and protection from the winds coming off of the Atlantic. One can walk or bike through the park along the many walkways made of wood and breathe in the pine-scented fresh air. And if one is lucky, one could find a pinecone filled with pine nuts to take home and eat. My friends, cousins, and I used to go pinecone gathering in the pinar when we were young. We would also pick up palmichas (the fruit of the palmito – Chamaerops humilis – a palm-like plant that grows at the foot of the pine trees in the forests). The palmichas we usually ate in situ under the shade of the pine trees, savouring the fresh, earthy flavours of the white fruit, after cutting off the green leaves with a sharp knife. Needless to say, we were usually accompanied by adults. The pine cones on the other hand we could gather on our own, although we had to take them home to enjoy. Once home, we roasted them in the fire place, letting the sweet aroma permeate the house and fueling our anticipation of enjoying the little cream-coloured nuts, which we could only access after breaking each shell one by one.

Camino Natural Vía Verde De Rota. Rota is a haven for outdoor sports, from swimming, to wind-surfing to horse-back riding, to golfing, to cycling. The town has recuperated the old train tracks that used to go from El Puerto de Santa Maria to Sanlúcar de Barrameda and has converted them into a green way for cyclists. Within the municipality of Rota, one can enjoy 7,8 kilometers of this green way. By the way, rental bikes are available in Rota and Costa Ballena at the Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena from Bicicletas Valdes

Intervenciones por RotaLiterally translated as “Interventions Around Rota”, this initiative founded by a few local artists is very unique. Their mission is to enhance the town with art in unexpected places at unexpected times. The art is permanent, but when it will appear on the streets, the façades of houses, or on any given wall is totally a surprise for the townsfolk. It’s street art in a sophisticated and serendipitous format. We got a tour of all the “interventions” around town. They all have one common denominator: they represent a part of Rota life and intend to make the viewer think deeper. There are ceramic pumpkins, giant snails, two summer lovers separated, a representation of the different people that have made up Rota, a fishing boat filled with rocks (to represent all the refugee children crossing the Mediterranean), and even a street named “bésame en esta esquina” (kiss me on this corner). I dare you to find all 20 of them!

Costa Ballena & Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club. The Whale Coast takes its name from the beach called Playa Ballena, who in turn was named by fishermen who used to tell a story about what was probably a stranded whale. Legend has it that there was an old whale who circled the world in search of the most beautiful beach and chose these waters off the coast between Rota and Chipiona as its sanctuary. From time to time, whales and other cetaceans have been stranded along these coasts, but none other has been so influential. Costa Ballena, whose lands as I mentioned in the beginning belonged to a family who are our friends and the Duke of Orleans-Borbón, is now a touristic complex and golf course.

Unlike other golf courses in Spain, Costa Ballena Ocean Golf Club was first built as a golf course, and later surrounded by housing and the rest of the complex. The course has 27 championship holes, a 9 hole par3 course, and the best practice facility in Europe according the the PGA of Sweden. The Club was built in 1995 with Spanish Masters champion José María Olazábal as the head of design for golf company Integral Golf Design. The course, which is all Bermuda grass, officially opened its doors in 1997 “to house all levels of competition, starting with the European Tour Second Stage Qualifying”. The Cuadrangular Internationals at Costa Ballena, King’s Cup, and Queen’s Cup have been contested here; and it is the official training base for National Teams during the winter months.

Friends of my father play golf at Costa Ballena on a regular basis; and my father played a couple of times before we left Spain. But I had never even stepped foot inside the complex until the other day. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a mini-paradise that reminds me of parts of the coast of Málaga, which has traditionally been the jet-set coast par excellence. It has a beautiful park, with waterfall and lakes included, a 4-kilometer long strand of white sand beach, 4 hotels (Hotel Barceló Costa Ballena and Hotel Playa Ballena have great views of the course), bars, restaurants, pubs, and a number of beautiful housing complexes. One could live or stay at Costa Ballena and never have to leave … but then one wouldn’t delight in all the pleasures the Villa de Rota has to offer …

Food & Wine. For a food blog, I couldn’t possible neglect one of the great pleasures of life, now could I? Visiting or living in Rota can be a delight for all senses, and for the palate there is plenty to discover.

Rota is known for its fresh, wild caught seafood, its succulent tomatoes, its calabaza roteña (a native pumpkin variety), and other fresh produce. After all, this town has always been known for its fishing and agriculture, two trades that thankfully have not been lost to progress.

There is an old-timer and a new-kid-on-the-block I would like to highlight and which we had the privilege of visiting on our tour.

Bodegas El Gato. Rota’s oldest winery. It turns out I’ve walked by this winery probably a thousand times, and yet I had never noticed it before. When the Americans arrived in the 1950s, the lands where the Base is located were all farms. Many of these farms were vineyards, some of which cultivated the local grape variety Tintilla. Tintilla is a small, purple grape, from which the sweet, syrupy varietal Tintilla wine is made.

Juan Martínez Martín-Niño, colloquially called “El Gato”, used to have a vineyard on the lands of the Base, where he only grew Tintilla grapes. When the lands were expropriated by the Spanish government, Juan found himself without his vineyard and without a job. Instead of abandoning his profession and passion however, he asked his father to help plant a small farm he had in town with the same grapes. Little by little, Juan’s vineyard grew and eventually in 1957, he opened up the winery, as the only producer of Tintilla wines. It wasn’t all a bed of roses nonetheless, and he had to supplement his income as a taxi driver – a profession that thrived thanks to the Base – for a number of years, until the winery took off.

Today, Juan is one of the few producers of Tintilla wine, a local art form that could’ve been lost if it had not been for his tenacity and perseverance. In his winery, several generations of his family and friends – who are considered extended family – work to keep sustaining this craft. They produce other wines as well, many of which are organic, all are aged in their bodegas, and some of which are still bottled artsinally by hand!

The wines can be purchased directly at the bodega; and they also offer guided tours in English, wine tastings, and flamenco shows. It’s worth a visit and a taste!

El Bucarito. For someone like me, El Bucarito is pure bliss. Where else could I visit an old, working farm, pet newborn kids, play with the mommy goats, watch black-hooved Spanish pigs happily romp around in their sty, have a close up stare down with a golden foal who was a little too timid to let me pet him, and eat organic, raw goat’s cheese and organic, salt cured meats? At El Bucarito, I was transported to my childhood within moments of arriving.

But there’s more to the story and this quaint farm, whose owners started this venture only about 20 years ago with the mission to produce artisanal cheeses in the heart of the Rota farmland. It’s a sustainable, organic farm that makes a variety of cheeses, most of which are raw, with a few of them made from pasteurised milk. They grow Florida goats, Iberico pigs, and horses and donkeys. The old, original farmhouse has been renovated and they offer buffet-style breakfasts, children’s parties, and cheese and cured meat tastings. They also have mini classes on how to make one’s own cheese. It’s a true delight for all ages, and most especially for one’s taste buds.

Back in the town of Rota, there are more places to shop and eat, too many to name in one blog post. But El Mercado de Abastos (the local market) is worth a visit, with its mixture of food stalls and bars (restaurants). We stopped there for a break on our tour and ate some salty, crunchy chicharrones (pork cracklings), sampled some cheeses from Dora’s shop (all organic and raw), and tasted some local, white wines.

The last leg of our weekend was at the Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería, an educational working farm. Rota farmers used to be called mayetos because they harvested their produce and brought it to market in the month of May, an entire month earlier than most in the region of Jerez. It was an agrarian way of life, that probably originated during Moorish times, when in the 15th century Rota is segregated from Chipiona and becomes its own town. Farmers were given small parcels of land, a choza (thatch-roofed house), and an animal, in return for preserving and exploiting the land as mayetos. The produce they cultivated and harvested became synonymous with Rota. The calabaza roteña (Rota pumpkin), the juicy, red tomato roteño, the green cuerno cabra peppers, the Spanish melon, and the local watermelon were prized produce in the markets of the region. They still are to this day, even as far as Sevilla.

The less fortunate mayetos lived in thatch-roofed wooden huts, whilst those with a little more money could afford a thatch-roofed house made of more sturdy materials. They worked from sunrise to sunset, nurturing and caring for their farmlands with constant love and attention. In addition to this complete dedication to their land, there are a few other factors that aided the mayetos to be able to bring their produce to market earlier than most. The long hours of sunlight, the moderate climate, their peculiar form of irrigation, and an earth rich in silica aided these agriculturists as much as the many hours they spent bent over the fields. Because the land is not very fertile and the silica is very permeable, they watered their carefully tilled liños (rows) by only wetting the surface of the ground and repeating this various times during the day. They carried the water in pointy jarras de barro (clay jugs) that are called jarras de riego.  The mayetos were known for spending most of the day bent over; and many suffered from a deviated column in old age. In the area, this health issue is known as anquilosis vertebral roteña, which goes to show how prevalent it was amongst these farmers from Rota.

It was pure permaculture farming, but with a life full of hardships that we cannot romanticise today. However, The Centro de Recuperación de la Mayetería is trying to ensure this important part of Rota’s history is not lost, that we learn from it, and learn how to collaborate with our environment for the benefit of all of us, including Mother Earth.

Arranque Roteño

From this way of life, a traditional cuisine developed that is still enjoyed today. One of the most iconic dishes known almost exclusively in Rota is arranque roteño, which has a similar base as gazpacho andaluz or salmorejo. This dish, although not really a soup like the gazpacho or a thicker sauce like the salmorejo, is made with tomatoes del tiempo (seasonal fruit), pimientos de cuerno de cabra, garlic, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and bread. For the bread you can use gluten-free bread, just make sure if it’s homemade that it is has a neutral flavour like regular bread has. The following recipe was shared by Pilar Ruiz Rodriguez-Rubio, who has her own local food blog, Aprendiendo a Cocinar, where she cooks with her mother, Cristina, and shares traditional recipes from Rota. (I met Pilar during the weekend, since she works at the Rota Office of Tourism; as serendipity would have it, she’s a good friend of a good friend of mine!)

You’ll need a lebrillo (or something similar in which to make the arranque) and pestle-like instrument. This can also be made in a food processor, but it won’t be as traditional, and the flavour may vary somewhat.

Ingredients

1 kilo red tomatoes, preferably of the plum variety (not overly ripe), peeled and roughly chopped
2 or 3 green peppers, preferably of the cuerno de cabra variety (or Roman in the US), torn by hand into small pieces
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
Spanish or French bread, one telera or about 1/2 kilo
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt, to taste

Method

In the lebrillo or mixing dish, using the pestle, crush the peppers, the garlic, and some sea salt. When the peppers are throughly mashed, add the tomatoes. Continuing mashing and mixing until you achieve a homogenous, smooth texture.

Start adding the bread, broken up in small chunks, and continuing mashing. Little by little, add the EVOO to soften up the mixture and the desired consistency* is achieved. Add more sea salt, to taste if necessary.

*The type of bread used is typically a telera, which is a golden loaf of bread, very crusty on the outside with a dry migajón or inside crumb. It can be found in Spanish bread shops and usually weighs about 1/2 kilo. The desired consistency or texture of this dish is much, much thicker than gazpacho (which is really a soup). The arranque is almost like a thick paste and it is eaten with pieces of raw onion or raw peppers used as spoons.

Buen provecho!

The Rekindled Friendship of A Dreamer in Paris {And Blanquette de Poulet à l’Ancienne}

Foreword, from La La Land

My aunt used to live in Paris
 
I remember, she used to come home and tell us these stories about being abroad

And I remember she told us that she jumped into the river once, barefoot

She smiled
Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the Seine

The water was freezing
She spent a month sneezing

But said she would do it again
Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem
A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see

Prologue, A Visit 13-Years in the Making 

Sometime in 2016…

“We’ve had twelve years of foreplay; it’s about time we see each other, don’t you think?”

Months later …

“Happy new year to you too. I wish you a happier 2017 than 2016. I also wish you the opportunity to travel to Paris!”

Some days later …

“Are you free on the weekend of …. ?”

“I am no longer free because you are coming?” (Isn’t that just the most perfect line for a story?…)

Day One, Uneaten Croissants in the 16th 

“It’s good to have you finally here.” And somewhere in his greeting, I believe he mentions the twelve years of foreplay again.

I look at him, and a smile runs away from my face. His audacity has always humoured me. We’ve been nothing more than just friends, but he’s invariably poking in a bit of picaresque when he can, which is so typically French. He was learning back on his futon, looking at me through mischievous eyes. His gaze was intense, provocative, sexy, and slightly languid, like Paris itself one could say.

I’ve never been in this apartment before but somehow it seems familiar… I think I’ve actually dreamt about being here. And I have divined where the expansive, bright window to the street is. I recall tip-toeing to peak out and take a glimpse of the marvelous city outside.

I walk over to the window now, open it, and look out. The air is brisk and pleasant. It’s early Saturday morning and the street is still quiet. I have just landed a couple of hours before, more or less at the same time that the terrorist attack took place at the other airport, I learn from my friend.

As if daring me not to stare straight at it, beaming right at me is one of those ornate 19th century, quintessentially Parisian buildings, the kind one sees in postcards and illustrations, which My Little Paris is known for. The pretty rooftop seems to be calling out to come crawl up onto it with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a good book or a fashion magazine in the other. I imagine myself sitting up there and wasting the day away, wistfully enjoying the grey skies and watching Parisians pass by down below, being part of the city yet being detached from it as well. I cannot help myself and I gawk at the façade, trying to get a glimpse into each and every window within my view, guessing how people are coming back to life today, what dreams they may have, what adventurous plans they will engage in, or simply what their daily routine might look like today … things that maybe in Paris may seem a little less mundane … and that on this day they might share with me, the unobtrusive observer.

I reluctantly pull myself away from the scene and tip-toe, stretching to see what lies ahead to the right. I know what’s there – my friend has sent me pictures. But even so, oh my! To have this as one’s daily view is quite impressive. I wonder if I could ever be blasé about it…. la Tour Eiffel feels close enough to touch with my fingertips. She beckons me; and if it weren’t because it’s hard to stand there leaning out of the window, I could just dillydally here all day with the fresh breeze in my face and Paris below my feet, looking at her, conjuring up enough day dreams to fill a book.

“My neighbors and I respect one another.” My thoughts are abruptly interrupted and come to a screeching halt. Opps..he must have noticed my lingering observation of the building across the street.

Slightly embarrassed, but not wanting to show it, I enquire, “And what does that mean?”

“Oh, you know, like in New York. One doesn’t look into someone else’s windows.” The French don’t beat around the bush, do they? By the way, if you’re interested, there’s an intriguing book, titled Ventanas de Manhattan, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, which is precisely about the all the different lives “hiding” behind the windows of New York. 

As my friend keeps talking, my mind wanders to East 81st Street. A lot of things have happened since we shared the same address. I got married and divorced. Both my parents have passed away. I’ve moved from the US to Europe, back to the US, and then back to Europe. I am not the same person who moved to NYC to become independent.

I look at him. He now has longer hair. It suits his eccentric personality and somehow brings out his blue eyes… Back in that other cosmopolitan city, we both had lived on the same floor. I try to remember how we met. My first thought is that it must have been in the elevator…but that would be too cliché for us… no, I correct myself, it was one day as he was taking clothes to the dry cleaners across the street and I was arriving home. Now I can recall his face, his flirty smile, and how he stopped me to chat with him and made me laugh as he kept the door open for me. That chance encounter lead to a friendship; and I remember being entranced by our philosophical conversations. And now, here I was sitting in his Paris apartment, half a world across the globe, almost thirteen years later.

He’s a teacher now. We were both in finance back then. The role befits him like a smooth, pliable glove. His deep voice – something I did not remember – is sensual. No wonder his female students all have crushes on him. There’s a only a trace of an accent, but one would never say it’s French. His English is impeccable, as it should be for an English teacher. Yet, he cannot be more Parisian. His family has lived here for generations. His great-grandfather made the lamps of the Pont Alexandre III. You can see them when facing the Grand Palais from the Quai d’Orsay. I won’t share which side, but they are there. Or so he tells me.

In my little studio on the Upper East Side, he would pop over unannounced all the time. We had a common friend, another neighbour, who took his cue and also came over unexpectedly often. Kimmie and her little black dog, Lulu, were also our companions.

At first, it flustered me a bit; but I later grew used to it and enjoyed having both or just one of them over. I’ve always wanted those types of friends à la-Briget-Jones-Diary or like those depicted in Love Actually that say what they think, do things impulsively – like coming over on a whim, making themselves right at home – and with whom we build bonds that are unbreakable even if we disagree, especially if we disagree.

Back then, he and I would sit on my futon for hours, talking. He was going through a crisis that eventually lead him back home, to Paris, and to his dream job. We used to also go out on the town, although less frequently. One of my last memories of us was at a bar with a French couple, friends of his who were visiting the city, and my Taiwanese friend from my MBA program, who had been visiting me. I had had on a bright, chartreuse green sweater and tight, bell-bottom jeans. I remember the bar we were in, some tucked-away gaunt on the Upper East Side; it was dark with red walls and we were the only people there, but we had philosophised the night away, trying to fix the world I’m sure…

“So, I’m thinking we don’t eat breakfast at this point and wait it out for lunch, which by French standards is not too long from now.”

I’m brought back from my reverie from another world, another life. “Sure, sounds great.”

The croissants and pastries that he had purchased for us remain on the glass coffee table untouched. By now, I’m sipping a warm cup of coffee with milk to keep me alert – he has had to rush down and cross the street to the corner shop to purchase the milk for me. I’m famished, but I’d rather wait for a hearty lunch than make do with a typical flaky and unsatisfying, French breakfast, about which I’m not keen at all and would cause my blood sugar to go up unnecessarily.

We continue to chat, a little uneasy at first after all these years, although we’ve never really lost touch. As the conversation progresses, it starts to get fluid and comfortable; yet, there’s an underlying current of excitement as we get to know each other all over again. Or maybe I’m confusing it with the fact that I’m back in Paris in a real Parisian apartment.

He calls the restaurant, the little bistro that he’s been patronising since he was a toddler with his family he tells me, and makes a reservation for half past twelve.

“What plans do you have, what would you like to see or do?” he asks.

“I don’t care, I just want to walk the streets of Paris, eat good food, and be a local. Plus, I’m here to see you.”

“Good then. Let’s go.”

Le Scheffer is perfectly charming, with a bunch of tiny, square tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There’s almost no room between table and table, but everyone seems to somehow manage to get in and sit down without knocking anything over or bumping into one another. On the walls, there are art-deco posters with scenes of Paris life or famous artsy Parisians.

We’re a little early for the French lunch crowd. But slowly it starts to fill up with couples, older ladies, and elegant gentlemen. They know him well here; so we are warmly greeted, and it feels cozy. I decide I could eat here every day.

Before looking at the menu, we order a bottle of red wine; neither of us are connoisseurs but it turns out to be a great combination of body and flavour, with no acidic after taste, and perfect for our meal selections. The waitress cannot figure out if she should give me the menu in English or French, as I keep confusing her by addressing her in some French and talking to my friend in English. She finally settles on the French version, while I preorder some escargots as an entrée. I’ve been longing for them since the last time I was in France a couple of years ago. On every single trip to or through France, it’s my must-have dish, whether they are in season or not. I chose a duck confit as my plat principal; and my friend orders a salade de fromage and les côtes d’agneau (the dish of the day).

“You know, in New York, there’s a bar dedicated to Josephine?” I say, as I look up to the poster of Josephine Baker hanging on the wall to the left behind him.

He looks back and remarks, “Ah, yes, that Josephine.” (What other Josephine could I be talking about? … Like there’s another one in French- pop – history, right?)

“I used to go to it all the time. It is on 42nd Street. It’s owned by Jean-Claude Baker, ‘the thirteenth of her adopted Baker’s dozen’,” I try to enlighten him, but our conversation quickly changes subject as we are trying to catch up on all the things we’ve missed these past thirteen years.

We bring each other up to date from our chance meeting in 2004 to to-day; we cover my parents’ untimely deaths, my complicated life with my ex-husband, the existential crisis he was going through when we met, and his now content life as an almost-forty-year-old bachelor in Paris. I begin to feel like not a day has gone by since we last saw each other and like I’ve always been part of the scene at this little neighbourhood bistro.

“What’s the name of the coffee with milk that the French order after lunch?” I know it’s not a café au lait. That’s a mayor faux-pas in France.

We each order a noisette to finish off our meal, while we linger at our table a little longer. The restaurant is now packed with couples and groups of three or four, all involved in lively conversations. I’m falling in love. With Paris. And with life. There’s not quite another place in the world where I could feel like this, this content to be alive. At least, not today.

“You know, I wanted to go to the Sorbonne when I was young,” I say. “An old friend of my parents’, who had lived through World War II had studied there. He would tell me magical stories of Paris and his university life. And he used to fuel my dreams of living here.”

(Roger and I had been on a first-name basis, although over 60 years separated us. I have always loved talking with the elderly, as their stories – of bygone eras that are brought to life and become palpable through their memories – are fascinating to me. Roger was a tiny, old man with white hair when he came into my life. His wife, Maria, a friend of my mother’s, was a lawyer with an aristocratic background, much younger but just as erudite as her husband. Her tales, however, were nowhere as captivating as his. I remember him fondly, wrapped up in cloud of sweet smoke coming off his pipe, and telling me stories on our back patio at home in Chipiona. Paris back then seemed a million miles away, but as he talked about the second Great War, most of which he had spent in France, of sipping coffee on the sidewalk of a Parisian cafe, of listening to Marlene Dietrich sing Lily Marleen, of walking amongst the artists in Montmartre, of Manet, Picasso, of the Louvre…and of the Sorbonne, I had been transported to the grand avenues, I had envisioned myself elegantly dressed, spending hours at a little cafe, sipping coffee whilst sitting on a wickered, bistro chair, I had dreamt of walking the hallways of the university with my paint brushes in my case….)

“What happened, why didn’t you come?”

“I think I was too young and too scared to move away from home back then.”

“You’re still in time to do this. And most importantly, you’re free to do so.” He continued, “Why not live your dream? Why not study at the Sorbonne and live here?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to study art now. I want to pursue other goals I think…”

Well maybe we can convince you to move here, I believe he said. Or maybe I imagined he voiced that. If the weekend continues like this, Paris, I think to myself, doesn’t have to work too hard to persuade me.

“Are you ready to go?” I nodded. “L’addition s’il vous plaît,” he told our waitress.

“Bien sûr, monsieur.”

He gallantly paid for our lunch and he said his goodbyes to the staff. We walked outside to a cool afternoon under a cloudy, melancholic sky. It was starting to drizzle and neither of us had an umbrella.

“Do you mind walking in the rain?”

“No, not at all.” Maybe I would even end up dancing like Gene Kelly. What a glorious feeling that would be, in Paris.

“What do you say if we just walk around and I show you my neighborhood, where I’ve grown up, gone to school, and still live?” It wasn’t really a question.

We walked up Rue Scheffer and turned left on Rue Cortambert, as he pointed out the pretty facades and shared that a friend had lived here, and another had lived over there, and he used to play in the apartment on the top floor of that building at his friend’s house…

What is it about a place that envelopes you and creeps into your being? Some people love New York City; I have a few friends, including my host in fact, who are fixated on it. But for me, I think I’ve always been a Parisian at heart.

I saw the open door to what seemed like a quaint church and wanted immediately to enter and explore. But I felt that I would be imposing on my friend’s tour if I seemed too pushy to go in. So, we started walking away, when some meters down the street, I stopped.

“Do you mind if we go in?” My tourist alter-ego trying to inch its way into this affair and getting the best of me, of course, no matter how much I was determined to repress it.

“No, not at all. This is my neighbourhood church, where I used to go since I was a little child. But I’m no longer religious.” …. sometimes it is very rewarding to be as annoyingly curious as I am.

Religion, spirituality, and existentialism became a recurring theme throughout our weekend. Ah.. philosophical dialogue, tu m’a manqué. Since my father died, except with my best friend who lives in another timezone making our daily rapport less immediate, I’ve not had profound discussions with anyone on a regular basis. So this was a welcome breath of fresh air.

We walked into the foyer of la Chapelle de la Communauté des Soeurs du Saint Sacrement and went up the stairs on the left. It’s not an elaborate church. But the interior is full of light making it seem very modern and welcoming. The floor is rustic, covered with red and beige tiles depicting scenes of birds and flowers. And the nave is populated with golden-coloured, wooden benches. We each walked a few steps inside, but turned around quickly to not disturb the few churchgoers that were there after lunch. Normally I would’ve been taking pictures at different angles, not caring about anyone else. But here, I just looked around and enjoyed the peaceful silence.

“The nuns still live here,” he informed me, as we were leaving after our brief peak inside. I nodded and smiled in acknowledgment. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the red wine, and the intoxicating feeling of being back in Paris, or all three-in-one, that I was becoming shrouded by this neighborhood, my friend’s life here, his memories. It created an intriguing sense of belonging in a part of Paris I had not been acquainted with before.

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying about almost every building, every street, and every corner on our walk.

I have never previously strolled around the Seizième Arrondisement. It’s above all, elegant and sophisticated. With its embellished, 19th-century buildings, sprinkled with some art-deco here and there, its large avenues and tree-lined streets with names of writers, poets, and influential people, statues of important historical figures, and the Bois de Boulogne, it’s the quintessential, upper-middle class Parisian neighbourhood, the homologue of the Upper East Side, where he and I had met. Yet Paris is Paris, and honestly one cannot compare the City of Lights (and Enlightenment I would add) to any other place.

The afternoon culminated with a creamy chocolat à l’ancienne for me and a beer for him at a corner cafe on a tiny plaza. We sat outside on the sidewalk, at a little round table with two faux-bamboo, wickered chairs, and watched people go by, like a true Parisian. (Roger would be proud of me.)

The drizzle had stopped long before, but a chilly wind was starting to pick up, so we headed back to his apartment to warm up and take a break. After another warm beverage at home, I took off on my own, leaving my friend to grade some papers.

My first stop was Trocadéro on my own to properly greet the grand lady.

It had been about five years since the last time I set foot in Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower. What does one think standing there admiring the symbol of France, surrounded by a crowd of people, yet being alone, feeling strangely lost, and at the same time unbelievably at home somehow?

My mind wandered to the past three, toughest years of my life. The first times I had been to Paris had all been with my parents. On the last occasion together, I was old enough to remember. And now, the memories were fresh again.

My parents and I had been in transit from the US to Spain and were stranded in Paris because of a bad connection. Tired and all, as my father stayed in our hotel to sleep from the red-eye flight, my mother and I had braved the cold morning and walked to the Champ de Mars. That’s just on the opposite side of where I now stood. We had gone up the tower, admired the view whilst shivering in our summery clothes that were appropriate for Seville, but definitely not for Paris in May. She and I were so much alike. My beautiful mom. We loved travelling, seeing new places, fueling our curiosity, reading, eating new things, trying out new recipes, cooking together, and talking for hours about everything. On that serendipitous layover, we saw Les Invalides, we visited the Louvre, and I vividly remember going inside Notre-Dame and being awed by the stained glass windows. She loved art – as I do – and was a collector.

“No, she only bought from local artists. Some are now well known in Spain. But nothing on the world market.” I shared with my friend, one day during my stay.

He had asked me as we walked around his neighbourhood and discussed his father’s art collection, which includes a Pissarro that is locked up somewhere.

“What use is it to have a Pissarro and not see it every day?” I asked, hoping to stimulate a thoughtful discourse.

“I don’t know. But you know, it’s an investment, maybe to keep it safe,” he responded.

Coincidentally, a few days ago, I heard an art critic on the radio say that art doesn’t exist if it cannot be seen and admired. 

On my friend’s advice, I ended up visiting the Musée de Marmottan Monet. This used to be a private collection, and it’s now open to the public as a museum. There was a special exhibit of Pissarro and there is an extensive permanent collection of Manet and Monet amongst other Impressionist artists.

But I digress … as I stood there facing the Eiffel Tower, part of me couldn’t believe I was there in the flesh. I tried to capture the entirety of what stood in front of me, to store it into my memory and not lose any little detail of what I was seeing, experiencing. But another part of me felt like it was living a daydream, like all this was unreal.

I thought back to when my friend first invited me to visit him and Paris. I always knew deep inside I would make this trip happen.

Now, I was really here, on a cool, early evening in March, surrounded by tourists taking selfies or posing for pictures and a bunch of street vendors trying to sell their tricks and their wares. The humming of the city and the music being played by the street artists didn’t bother me; they kind of lulled me away to a fantasy, as I stood there in my little space with what I imagined could be the spotlight shining just on me…

It’s hard to believe that this tourist attraction, and such an iconic architectural wonder, was once viewed with aesthetic skepticism. It was even given the moniker of the ‘metal asparagus’! Yet, today it couldn’t be a more iconic symbol of one nation and people.

It was getting late and chillier though, so I finally began to retreat and walked back towards la Place du Trocadéro. I felt like I was in a film – all I needed was a song playing in the background – as every few steps, I turned around to catch another glimpse. I wanted to never to stop this moment, to never leave, to be able to see her just a little bit longer. To be a true local.

Reluctantly, I left and walked round a bit to eventually go back up the hill, where I again crossed paths with a majestic Benjamin Franklin and headed home.

“Everything in Paris is near,” my friend said later on that evening as we discussed the plans for the next day.

I’m not sure I would agree, especially when one sees the city from Montmartre.

Day Two, A Fugacious Bike Ride 

“I’m going to give you the grand tour of Paris on my bike!” And with that, the night before, I went to bed naively thinking it would just be another day in the city.

There are days in life we wake up thinking we know who we are, but somewhere during those 24 hours, we realise we aren’t exactly who we thought we were …

In my case, a fugacious bike ride on an early Sunday morning on the sleepy streets of Paris could be named as the culprit.

We had gotten up early as planned, showered, got dressed, and went downstairs, helmets in hand, in the tiny glass elevator barely wide enough for one, much less two. The bike was waiting for us, unlocked, just down the street.

“You keep it unlocked? Here in Paris?” I ask with incredulity. It wouldn’t stand a chance in Spain.

“Yes. I’ve never had it stolen in all these years since I’ve been back. And besides, if I put a chain on it, the dogs pee on it, and it’s not nice smelling that when I bend down to take it off.” Sensible of course.

“You’re wearing the perfect shoes.”

“Of course. What do you think?!” In my anticipated elation, I wasn’t trying too hard to not sound priggish, I’ll admit.

I had had enough foresight to pack my black, short boots, the kind that in Spain the moteros wear. The bike ride had been part of the grand scheme of things all along. So, now I was perfectly outfitted for the adventure, although I really had no clue of what I would feel.

He got on the bike, whilst I adjusted my helmet and then hopped on the back. We took off slowly driving up Rue Vineuse and quickly passed good ole’ Mr. Franklin – we were becoming regulars he and I. A group of what we tried to guess were Spanish or French senior citizens, with their tour guide holding up a thin pole with a little flag on top indicating the path to follow, slowly made their way across the crosswalk in front of us, as I was adjusting to being on the bike. The light turned green and off we went.

Oh! How can one describe the fresh, crisp breeze in one’s face, the early morning silence, the almost empty, sleepy streets, and the elegant scenes we were passing by without sounding utterly sappy?

I was so immersed in the daydream that I didn’t realise I kept sliding into my friend and was risking falling off. At a stop at one of the lights, I finally readjusted my position, squeezed my thighs as if I were on a horse, and regained some sort of backseat composure. I packed my hands into my friend’s jacket pockets and started to sway with the movements and enjoy the view on both sides. The air was brisk, but not cold; yet I was glad to be sheltered from the wind by my friend’s body. Every few seconds, it seemed, I kept switching my head from side to side, trying not to miss anything we are driving by.

After some turns here and there, we were in Montmartre.

The streets were just barely coming to life and the cafes were not even open yet, creating the sensation that Paris belonged only to us. As we passed la Place du Tertre, a couple of artists were starting to trickle in to set up their stands. The scene couldn’t have been more picturesque, right out of a movie.

Everything was peaceful and invigorating. And on the bike, I was exhilarated. We rounded our way to the Sacré Coeur, first from behind, and later from the front. The doors were firmly closed, but we had had no intention of going in. We stopped to admire the city from the cliff. From up here, Paris is immense, a little overwhelming. I almost could not comprehend the view, as there was so much humanity spread out in front of us. Too many lives waking up. Too many stories being unfolded. Too many old souls from times past wandering through the maze of streets below us…

After what seemed like a very long moment, my friend turned the bike around. I continued to hang on with my hands inside my friend’s jacket pockets, now with my gloves on, and silenced a few squeals of delight as we sped through some streets with hardly a human in sight, making our way back down the cliff.

“No, I’m not scared. Au contraire, I love it!” I kept having to reassure my friend. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, every bit of the ride, from learning how to keep myself balanced, leaning into my friend without hitting my chin on his shoulders, to breathing in the fresh, unadulterated morning air, to losing myself in the speed and the city passing by. I had not remembered how much fun riding a bike is. And riding a bike in Paris… well, I guess you’ll have to try it…

We stopped on the corner of Rue des Saules, and behind us to the right was the Au Lapin Agile, the famous, historical cabaret. And to the left was another gem, the Clos de Montmartre, a winery in the middle of Paris! Both of these sights I had never seen. So a few obligatory pictures ensued and even a couple of selfies since there was no one in the vicinity to ask to take a picture at such an early hour. After our brief interlude, we made our way down Rue Caulaincourt to head back downtown and drive by L’Arc de Triomphe.

“I’ve been up the Arc,” I yelled out, as the wind threatened to swallow my words and my bangs kept getting into my eyes underneath the protection of my helmet.

“I have too, surprisingly.” There was an emphasis on the last word because as he’s explained to me already, he’s never been up the Eiffel Tower.

We made our way through Avenue George V to the river and drove by le Pont Alexandre III (just behind, one can see le Grand Palais and le Petit Palais), le Musée d’Orsay (I was supposed to see this later in the day – but decided against it in favour of a quiet afternoon at home watching a movie), la Place de la Concorde… les Jardins de Luxembourg…my friend’s high school is on the side street of les Jardins… so many grand buildings, so many Parisian icons, and so much history, all in one sweep. I was feeling drunken and I wanted to do it all over again, although we were not yet done!

We cruised a bit longer and drove behind the Musée d’Orsay, where we parked the bike. As I stood on solid ground again, I felt a little wobbly, just like when one gets off a horse after a long ride. With our helmets on our arms, we walked into the corner cafe, Les Deux Musées, to find only a few early-bird tourists and a couple of Parisians starting off their day. My friend ordered a tartine; and I didn’t know what to order. In my opinion, I know I repeat myself, but the French do not know how to do breakfast. I realise I may be a bit exaggerated with my breakfast meal selections, which invariably include a lot of vegetables, eggs, and no bread. But one must understand that a croissant just doesn’t cut it for me. Nevertheless, I succumbed to the circumstances and ordered a pain au chocolat. When both our plates arrived, I couldn’t believe I had not ordered the tartine, which at least came with a good serving of healthy French butter. I tried to get the waiters attention to order my own, but generously, my friend traded with me. However, he barely ate.

After warming up inside and out, we hopped back on the bike, eventually making our way back home. The day was still young and I took off on my own again. As I walked on Avenue Paul Doumer towards le Jardin du Ranelagh, I stopped a few times to check out real estate listings. Just like I like to buy dictionaries on my trips, I enjoy learning how properties are valued locally and getting a glimpse of real people’s dwellings. At one of the windows, a nice old gentlemen asked me if I was looking to buy. I stifled a giggle and responded in fairly good French that I was only looking. After an exchange of pleasantries, I found myself being invited to tea! Ah, Parisians! I politely declined and continued on my merry way with a huge smile on my face.

Le Jardin du Ranelagh was filled with families and children playing, with people walking their dogs, and with the rhythmic chanting of Gabonais protesting something in front of the Embassy of Gabon. Behind le Jardin du Ranelagh are a number of elegant grand houses, one of them is now the Musée de Marmottan Monet, which I mentioned before having visited. As I had been there the day before as well, I took a bench and sat in silence observing the relaxing scenes. I later strolled past the museum on Rue Louis Boilly to encounter the Embassy of Monaco, the Square des Ecrivains Combatants Morts, and the Bois de Boulogne. The chilly air was refreshing; and I almost went into the bois for a walk, but I was getting hungry for some lunch. So, I headed back to meet my friend. On my way back, I stopped at Pierre Hermé to pick up some macarons, discovering a flavour new to me: a fois-gras-chocolate combination, whose name I don’t remember, but whose delicate taste, a perfect balance of savoury, sweet, and umami, I’ll never forget. (Or could it be that a macaron tastes more sublime when enjoyed in Paris?)

That evening, I became just another city dweller, disrobing my tourist exterior; we watched The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, cozily lying on the futon at home. Day two came to an end with a few tears and a couple of kleenexes. (Needless to say, I’m a cry-baby with emotional stories.) And with the budding knowledge that Paris, somehow, somewhere in just the right time, was the culmination, the turning point to something.

The Last Day, More Croissants and The Seine

Apparently the croissant-tartine fiasco of the day before had left an impression on my friend, for on my last day visiting, he insisted I should have eggs for breakfast. We walked down to Place du Trocadéro and settled on Carette. The place was bubbling with people. It was just a hair too chilly to be outside, although the little round tables and pretty woven chairs on the sidewalk were mostly full. We thus took a seat inside, with me facing the street and all the action coming in. If Carette is not your typical, fashionable Parisian cafe, I don’t know what is. Even the waitresses are nicely dressed and a little bit aloof. The good thing about being with a Parisian native is that other Parisians are not condescending and actually turn helpful once they discern you’re not a ‘real’ tourist. Through my foggy, pre-coffee haze, as we waited for our meal, I pleasantly engaged in some people watching, observing the string of classically Parisian people parade in. My friend pointed out that as it was Monday, one can tell just how many people lead a leisurely life in this arrondissement.

One in particular comes to mind: a tall, thin blond woman in her late 50s (I guessed), who would’ve turned heads in another less-cosmopolitan city but here she’s a normal sight, came in. Her long legs were dressed in opaque, black tights, ending in rather high heels, maybe a little too high for a Monday morning cafe au lait. A golden, loosely fitting mini dress and a fluffy, fur vest completed her essentially elegant look, albeit in a rather ostentatious way. Hanging from one arm was what for sure was an expensive bag, although I didn’t pay close enough attention to check out the brand, since the rest of her was too alluring. Completing her attire were her permanent pouty lips on top of the rest of her surgically enhanced face.

A few Asians also trickled in, also in quintessentially Asian-Parisian looks, like those depicted by Kaneko, my favourite whimsical, Parisian illustrator. They have a sophisticated way about them, which they know exactly how to couple with a hip, quirkiness that makes them so unique and recognizable anywhere. One can always tell them apart I think, even from behind. It’s something about their slender figures, the well-fitted clothes, the elegant coats, the pretty shoes…

Our breakfast arrived almost all at once, creating a bit of havoc for us as our waitress and we tried to fit everything onto our very tiny, round table. I had to remove the salt and pepper shakers, the little flower in a pot, and a few other items to make room for the many dishes. My friend had ordered the Brunch Carette for me (I had let him take over without qualm) and the ‘regular’ Petit Déjeuner Carette for himself. I honestly didn’t want so much food, or bread for that matter, but there was no other way to get my desired eggs, as the difference between the regular and the brunch is literally just the eggs. These came delicately plated with crunchy croissant sticks, which,  yes, I ate.

After filling up our stomachs and sipping a few strong coffees, we walked around a bit and decided to drive into ‘town’. We took an Autolib electric car to Saint-Germain. One can become a member for a monthly fee and then drive the cars, paying only the minutes used. It’s an innovative and smart way to keep the city a little cleaner and greener. There are parking spots that can be reserved sur la marche around the city. It took us a few times passing by Sonia Rykiel’s before we settled on our free spot to drop off the car, which we found near the river.

We walked along the riverbank on the Port des Saints-Pères for a while, admiring the Seine, the few boats that were docked, and crossing paths with other strolling couples and a runner or two. At the Pont du Carrousel we came back up to street level and crossed over to the grounds of the Louvre. It was windy, and as we fought against the gusts blowing our hair around and opening our coats, we entered through the arch at Place du Corrousel. I had never entered through this side of the Louvre and somehow I had never noticed the mini Arch de Triomphe on the left.

We observed the queue outside the pyramid, and my friend remarked that it was good to see that tourism in Paris is still going strong. I agree; not even all the terrorist attacks are stopping people from coming here to see everything this magical city has to offer. My friend works near the Bataclan, where the last major attack took place over a year ago. I was still in the US back then; and I remember texting him enquiring if he was ok. Thankfully, he was, as it took place at night and he was not anywhere near. But many of his friends had been inside and some had gotten injured and others had seen their friends die right in front of their eyes.

I mentioned the galleries near the Louvre, and although I didn’t really care about seeing them (it was a mere curiosity to know their location), my friend took me there. At the Palais Royal, there are a number of interesting shops, including a few luxurious ones, like Stella McCartney. At one of the windows, we admired some very unique gloves, of which I correctly guessed the pricing (all were over 300 euros). I wasn’t in the mood for shopping, but as my friend said, “On your next trip, you must get a pair, so you can say ‘these gloves are from the shops at the Palais Royal in Paris’.” So, it’s unofficially on my agenda for next time…

As we strolled, I wondered what it would be like to live here and have all this at one’s fingertips, on a whim on any given day… When one is surrounded by so much beauty, so much history, so much culture, and so many intriguing gems to be discovered, it’s like being in a living museum. I’m guessing it would be like living in that dream that Roger had conjured up for me.

“I can tell Spaniards apart from the crowd. And I can spot Americans and Brazilians,” my friend, who dated a Brazilian girl for some time, voiced his thoughts as a group of Spaniards crossed our path on our way to Le Jardin des Tuileries. “The Spanish are always very loud,” he added. Yes, they are, I admitted.

Le Jardin was rather tranquil with a few groups of school children and not too many tourists. I had never been in it before, and it was a surprise to see all the statues strewn throughout the grounds. The park was originally created by Catherine of Medici as the garden of the Tuileries Palace in 1564; and it later was opened to the public in 1667 and became a public park after the French Revolution. I could imagine the elegant ladies and gentlemen that had strolled the park as I did now, preceding me by centuries past; I could envisage them in their grand outfits, their over-sized hats, and twirling their parasols, whilst nodding their heads from side to side, cordially greeting their acquaintances who were also there to see and be seen.

We crossed back over to the Rive Gauche and decided it was time for lunch. We settled on the first restaurant we saw on the corner which seemed nice enough, Le Fregate, just across the Pont Royal.

“It’s always fun having people over to discover places I’ve never eaten at,” he said, adding “Paris is a food-lover’s dream.”

We both enjoyed a typical Parisian dish, one of his favourite’s, a creamy Blanquette de Veau à l’Ancienne with rice. It was delicious. I accompanied mine with a glass of red house-wine, whilst in the background the music of George Bensen created a lovely mood. The waiter told us that the playlist belonged to the previous owners, but that the local crowd enjoyed it so much, they kept it on.

As we strolled back to get the electric car to go home, we stopped at Sennelier on Quai Voltaire for me to pick up some art supplies. We had been talking about art and the Sorbonne since I arrived. And I had shared that I had not picked up a brush since sometime in 2004 or 2005, shortly after he had left NYC; so naturally, I couldn’t leave Paris without stepping inside this famous store.

Sennelier’s on Quai Voltaire is not immensely big, but it does contain quite a lot of supplies displayed on three floors, all of which we explored. The old, worn wooden shelving all seems to be original, possibly dating from the late 1800s, and the staff are welcoming and helpful, although maybe just a little Parisian enough to not bother you as you peruse the goods. That suited me just fine. I ended up buying a little sketch pad, which I’ve not opened up yet…but I will soon. It’s small enough that I can carry it in any purse, and large enough to create something with detail on every page.

We dropped off our electric car near the statue of Benjamin Franklin, back in the 16th. We were headed home sort of with still a few hours to spare before I needed to go to the airport, when my friend said, “How would you like to buy an 800 euro photograph?”

“What do you mean?”

“Come. This guy, who is the younger brother of a friend of mine, has an exhibit at a gallery just up the street. He has over 100,000 followers on Instagram and is selling limited edition prints. Tomorrow is the vernissage. How do you say that?”

“Inauguration. Or Opening night.” I replied.

We walked up Avenue Kléber to the gallery to check out Guillaume Dutreix and his photographs. Months ago, I had dreamt of visiting a photography exhibit with my friend whilst in Paris. In my dream, I know the photographer’s work and we hit it off … so I prepared myself for some serendipity .. but in real life, I had never seen him or heard of his work before. Nonetheless, his photography is impressive. White backgrounds predominate creating an ethereal feel to each image. The angles and the details seem effortless, although I’m sure he’s fastidious about achieving them. My friend chatted a bit with his friend, while I admired the artwork. And then off we went. Time to go home, finish packing, and get ready to abandon Paris.

A couple of hours later, we were standing at Place du Trocadéro, awaiting the bus to take me to Charles de Gaulle. We chatted a little more, as I reflected that the weekend had gone by very fast, although also very intensely. I had lived out the three days as a real local thanks to my friend, who was a wonderful host and who has enabled me to feel Paris in a way that has revived something in me that had been tucked away and forgotten.

As my bus approached, he leaned over to say good-bye, rubbing his soft beard against my cheeks. We exchanged three kisses, looked at each other, and said ‘hasta luego’. I left my bag with the driver, hopped on the bus, and unwillingly turned to my right to look after my friend. He was already starting to cross the street, but also turned to face me, and waved good-bye.

I took a seat a couple of rows back on the left from the driver, buckled up, and aimlessly looked out the window; I was no longer soaking in the city. As we rounded the plaza, on the right, I caught a glimpse now of the opening between the two colossal wings of the Palais du Trocadéro and barely focused on the Tour Eiffel. On the radio a tune started to play.

I instantly thought about these three glorious days spent in this city. Nostalgia started to engulf me, although I hadn’t yet left. At that instant, I promised myself I would return again soon.

Epilogue

City of stars

Are you shining just for me?

City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see

City of stars
Just one thing everybody wants

I don’t care if I know
Just where I will go

‘Cause all that I need is this crazy feeling
A rat-tat-tat on my heart

Think I want it to stay
City of stars

Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
You never shined so brightly

À bientôt mon ami; à tout à l’heure ma cherie, Paris. J’ai changé … merci pour tout. Quand je reviens, nous nous verrons avec nouvelle yeux …

Blanquette 

There are maybe other dishes more representative of French cuisine, but the Blanquette is Parisian; in fact, the recipe calls for Parisian mushrooms, which are none other than the button variety, but grown just outside the city. It’s a comfort food, for chilly Autumn or Spring days. And it can be made with veal or another meat. I prefer to use chicken, which is easier to cook and comes out less dry than veal.

I have found a local butcher who procures organic, free-range birds that are healthier, tastier, but also just a bit tougher. So depending on what type of chicken you use, you may have to adjust the cooking times.

Blanquette de Poulet à l’Ancienne

Serves: 4
Prep Time: 10 min
Cook Time: 40 min

Ingredients

2.5 – 3 liters filtered water
1/4 cup white wine
1 whole chicken, preferably free-range, pasture raised, cut into 10 pieces (ask your butcher to do it for you, if you don’t know how)
3 medium/large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 celery branches, cut into medium pieces
7-8 French onions (baby onions)
2 strands of fresh cilantro
1-2 leeks, peeled and chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into medium pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
10-12 Parisian mushrooms (button mushrooms)
50g of butter (I used unsalted Kerrygold)
2-3 tablespoons arrowroot powder
2 tablespoons coconut creme
1 egg yolk
sea salt
ground nutmeg

Method

In a large pot over medium heat, we’ll make a bouillon. Pour the water (start off with 2.5 liters and increase if necessary) and white wine, and add the cilantro, 1 tablespoon sea salt (more to taste later if needed), baby onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms, potatoes, garlic cloves, and chicken pieces. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Once the bouillon is made, take the chicken pieces out of the pot. Heat some butter in a saucepan over medium heat. And add the chicken to caramelize on each side. Set aside.

Now, make a roux with the 50g of butter over medium heat. Cook the butter, stirring constantly, until it reaches a golden brown hue. Add the arrowroot powder and stir well. Cook a few minutes longer. Then add a few tablespoons of the bouillon and a sprinkle of ground nutmeg, to taste. Stir to mix well. Pour everything into the pot and add the caramelized chicken pieces back as well.

In a small bowl, add some tablespoons of the sauce, the egg yolk, and 2-3 tablespoons of coconut creme. Stir to blend well. Pour into the stew pot, and stir. Simmer everything together about 10 minutes.

Serve with some freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, and cauliflower or regular, cooked white rice.

Bon appetit!

My Precious Dad {& I Finally Capture The Castle}

I’m having a lazy day at home, enjoying the fact that I can get up late and do nothing. It’s days like this that I have time to think, ponder about my life.

As I look outside through my patio doors, I see the bright blue skies of Andalucía. Even in the midst of winter, the hue is intense, almost blinding, and there are no clouds in the sky. I enjoyed similar days like this with my father in Florida …

I look up at his picture, at his sweet, precious smile and that peculiar glint in his eyes, and I find it so very hard to believe he’s gone. He’s only a memory now …

In the time we spent together – just the two of us alone – we shared stories, sometimes talked for hours (mostly philosophical and political discussions), we reminisced about my mom, watched National Geographic, history shows, and movies together, giggled together at Kiko‘s antics (Kiko is our mini schnauzer), and ate all of our dinners together. He repeated almost daily that he loved what I made and I cooked just like Mom. On occasion, I was almost embarrassed to hear my Dad repeatedly say how much he liked a dish. But I know he was grateful for sharing it with me. And it must have brought him closer to Mom as well.

Mom passed away in what will be two years in March. Dad was lonely and depressed (as I was too). He missed the love of his life tremendously. But he was making ’emotional ends’ meet…and having me with him probably kept him going. I know I wouldn’t have been able to get through these last two years without him either. And I’m glad I told him that many times. I’m glad I told him how much I loved him almost on a daily basis. I’m so glad I gave him kisses every morning and hugged him every day.

I spent over the last two years – most of the time it was just the two of us – living with him and getting to know him in ways I had never realised before. Dad was an honourable man, a sweet, humble, intelligent person whose moral compass was geared by a deep respect for the fellow person and a deep love for his family. He never raised his voice to any of us, until one day – and one  time only – after my mother’s death, when all of our emotions had us at the tip of our wits.

He was the most honest and trustworthy person I have ever known. He detested lies. He always said it was better to tell the truth, even if that got me in trouble, than to lie about something. That’s why for months after I eloped with my ex-husband, I felt miserable for hiding the truth from my parents…

He didn’t like to share his emotions though; yet contrastingly he couldn’t hide his dislike of things. He got very upset at the injustices of the world and was more empathetic than I ever gave him credit for. He was considerate and a kind-hearted man. He would frequently tell me not to criticize others, to see the positive side of things, and measure more by the good than the bad. The irony of it is that that’s how I am because of him and my mother’s teachings. But I felt comfortable enough to share all my thoughts with my mother always. She had never judged me. And although my father also didn’t judge me, he took all my words to heart literally; and he misunderstood my venting as something more serious. Because he was a very serious and literal person.

But he could also be funny and witty and even sarcastic at times. And he had a lovely, incredibly sweet smile and an infectious laugh. His whole face and his eyes would light up with glee when he smiled. He was genuine, yet oftentimes misunderstood by others who didn’t know him well enough and took his seriousness on face value.

Dad taught me to not only appreciate, but fall in love with classical music. Our favourites are Johann Strauss father and son. The Blue Danube, the Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, and the Radetzky March will forever remind me of Dad; and as every year for many years now, I have entered the Vienna Philharmonic lottery in the hopes of getting admitted into the New Year’s concert in person. The concert was part of our new year’s day routine since I can remember when we first started watching it together when I was a little child in Spain; and his dream was to enjoy it in person with my Mom. I hope one day I can sit in the Vienna Concert Hall and clap to the tune of the Radetzky March just as we used to do together while watching it on T.V.  I’m sure tears will be rolling down my cheeks as they are now, but it will be incredibly exhilarating to do this in his memory. To do it for him. And to do it for us.

Dad was also an extremely private person … he probably would be slightly uncomfortable that I’m writing a post about him. And in all honesty, I have written, rewritten, and deleted numerous posts about him.

Since he died on November 12th, just 11 days short from his 78th birthday, I’ve been once more lost. I’ve been on a rollercoaster of emotions; just as I was beginning to heal – accept is probably more accurate actually –  from the loss of my mother, I now have to face the second greatest loss in my life. And this time, I’m home alone. I don’t have Dad to comfort me because he’s the one who is gone.

I don’t even have Kiko by my side. Kiko is staying with my brother, sister-in-law, and my two lovely nieces. They all love him very much and can offer him more company than I can right now. So to be fair to him, I cannot selfishly bring him with me to Spain. Little does he realise just how much I need him though, and need our daily walks, and miss his funny, quirky ways … but he’s better off with them.

And Dad I’m sure is smiling upon all of us knowing how much we all love his little guy. There’s an immense emptiness in my heart, in my every day – I can no longer wake up to a message from Dad or send Dad a message in the morning or talk with him every night – I can no longer share with him how our days went or discuss just how much of a cultural shock I’m having returning home to Spain … it’s the strangest feeling being an orphan.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for my brother and his family. And I’m grateful for my uncle Manolo, who is like an extension of both my parents. We wouldn’t love each other as we do, if it weren’t for the amazing parents we have had. Dad and Mom, each in their own way, made us who we are.

There’s one more thing I want to share about Dad. He was an avid supporter and reader of my blog and of everything that I do. He was incredibly proud of me; and I owe it to him to continue writing and pursuing my dreams. Thus, I won’t delete this post. This time, like Mortmain, I am going to capture the castle since I’ve been a long time searching for it.

Dad, I love you with all my heart. And I will forever miss you and will always be thankful and proud to be your daughter.

Dennis Gilbert Dorn
November 23, 1932 – November 12, 2016

Ditch the Wheat {Book Review + Recipe, & Flash Giveaway!}

The Cookbook

Ditch the Wheat, 120 Paleo Recipes for a Gluten Free Lifestyle by Carol Lovett, the author of the Paleo blog Ditch the Wheat (ditchthewheat.com).

First Impressions & The Book’s Offering

As Carol states, this is a cookbook with a simple mission: “To encourage and empower everyone in their journey to find good health, good taste, and to enjoy each bite along the way.” She further emphasises that as you flip through the pages of Ditch the Wheat, “I want you to laugh with me as you read stories, feel inspired as I offer advice, and know – above all – you do not have to sacrifice. With every page I want you to feel as good in your body as I do…[even though]…that wasn’t always the case.”

Carol battled health issues for many years; and it was thanks to her doctor who one day said to her, “Why don’t you ditch the wheat?” that she finally took charge of her own health journey and changed her life forever.

[Read more…] »

The Most Comprehensive Paleo Cookbook in Print, The Ultimate Paleo Cookbook

The Cookbook

The Ultimate Paleo Cookbook by Arsy Vartanian, author of The Paleo Foodie Cookbook, The Paleo Slow Cooker, and the Paleo recipe and lifestyle blog, Rubies and Radishes, and nine other Paleo bloggers: Rachel Ball (Grok Grub), Jenny Castaneda (Paleo Foodie Kitchen), Hannah Healy (Healthy Eats Real), Katja Heino (Savory Lotus), Nazanin Kovács (Naz Kovács, previously Cinnamon Eats), Rachel McClelland (South Beach Primal), Vivica Menegaz (Nourished Caveman), Caroline Potter (Colorful Eats), and Kelly Winters (Primally Inspired).

[Read more…] »

Borscht with Beef, From Russia with Love

If there’s one place in the world that I could say is on my proverbial ‘bucket list’, that’s Russia, that land that was once prohibited to Westerners, the land shrouded in mystery and spy stories, the land of an intensely resilient people who have survived hardships most of us cannot even imagine, and the land of snowy Siberia.

The mere thought of standing in the famous Red Square in Moscow and seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral with its colourful onion-top domes and Byzantine architecture and being feet away from the Kremlin, I know will one day make me giddy with glee. I will have to pinch myself to believe what my eyes will be seeing.

[Read more…] »

Once Upon A Table {Two Calamari Recipes – Papas con Chocos & Habas con Chocos}

I’ve not posted anything since last year November, so first things first: Happy New Year 2016 & Happy Chinese New Year! May it bring us all good health, happiness, and prosperity.

Yesterday the air was crisp, and the sky was so blue it seemed as if someone had taken a brush to paint it just perfectly so. There was not a cloud in sight. And the sunshine was so warm that it encouraged me to take off my jacket and walk about in short sleeves, something that normally at 14C I wouldn’t be doing. As Kiko (our mini schnauzer) and I got closer to the forrest we go through every day, we were greeted by yellow and blue butterflies bouncing around us and a couple of tiny little birds, whose feathers were iridescent in the rays of the sun, and who startled by our steps flew quickly away, chirping. I had the fleeting sensation of being in a Disney fairytale …

[Read more…] »

Autumn in Florida {Pumpkin Pottage with Kale, MahiMahi and Bacon}

Florida vs London

The rain was coming down in torrential buckets after the stifling heat of the day, enticing my curiosity to go outside and observe nature in the tropics. In Florida the rain is different to that in London, where moments before I had been transported by the prologue of the book I’ve just started, Capital. Here at this latitude, it is almost always accompanied by a fanfare of thunder and cracking that makes one realise the heavens can be quite ferocious and nature has no friends (as we say in Spain).

[Read more…] »

Flourless Chocolate ‘Cloud’ Cake, and Fair Trade Month

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

~ Nelson Mandela

It’s very hard to “walk in another man’s shoes”, to truly understand what it feels to grow up in poverty, without access to many things people in other countries take for granted, such as having food on the table for every meal, having shoes to wear or having more than one pair, having access to healthcare, modern infrastructure, the opportunity to go to school, the possibility to have real chances to change your life for the better…

I remember growing up in Spain during a time when ETA, the Basque terrorist group, was in its full apogee and bomb scares were happening almost every week at our school. Every time we were told that classes were postponed for later in the day or cancelled, I always felt a pang in my heart and remember thinking that I much preferred to have to go to school every single day of the year than getting time off because of bomb threats. I also remember many kids being ecstatic about not having to go to classes; in fact, some of these kids who are obviously now adults, have admitted to calling in many of the threats that resulted to be fake.

[Read more…] »

Paleo Takeout {Book Review + Recipe, Plus a Giveaway!}

nother

I’ve been in a no-cooking rut lately … in all fairness life has been topsy turvy for over a year and especially this summer, where I have been travelling in Europe, and unfortunately it wasn’t for leisure.  During this time I have been playing musical kitchens (and musical countries), and at some points have had no kitchen at all … I’m so eager to be reunited with my kitchen appliances, gadgets and having the freedom to experiment again … but in the meantime, and to use the popular vernacular, I’ve fallen off of the Paleo bandwagon so many times, I have lost count…and probably have a few bruises as proof (for example, my hair has seen much healthier days).

top1

I’ve eaten bread. Because eating a sandwich has never been my thing but convenience got the better of me. Mea Culpa. Over the summer, I’ve eaten wheat-flour-coated fried seafood in Spain. I actually didn’t have a beer in Germany, but ate a breaded schnitzel. (But these are lesser evils as I was travelling. And that’s a valid excuse.) Mea Culpa. Returning to the US though has thrown me overboard: I’ve engaged in the art of rummaging through kitchen drawers seeking the perfect takeout menu. And worst of all, I’ve ordered and eaten the stuff. And not just once. A few times. Yes. And I had a kitchen, so there was no excuse. Except that takeout is so easy. So convenient … I’ve had pizza, filled with gluten and possibly a myriad of other things I generally avoid. I’ve eaten Chinese takeout (it’s better not to even go there). And Sushi takeout. Yes, I confess with remorse. But like I said, it was easy. It was convenient. And I couldn’t resist. Mea Culpa. I could keep ‘fessing up… but the important thing to take from the lesson that I have learned is that my stomach and digestive system can no longer take all the “junk”, no matter how irresistible the food may be or how lazy I am feeling or how convenient it may seem. I will regret for hours the few moments of pleasure these foods (and experiences) bring me.

Therefore, I must renounce the temptation of convenience in the name of trying to fuel my creative juices to encourage my return to a stable Paleo lifestyle and improved health. The problem is the juices are not really flowing and with a small kitchen, no appliances beyond a coffee maker and a toaster, I’ve been totally uninspired until this past week. The culprit source of inspiration is none other than takeout food!

carnitasWhat? How can this be? …

A couple of weeks ago, Russ Crandall offered his new cookbook Paleo Takeout: Restaurant Favorites Without the Junk for review and I jumped on the opportunity. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but I did have a feeling that disappointed I would not be … what I didn’t know was how pleasantly surprised I would be and just what a great inspiration this book truly is! The creative juices are back and with a vengeance!

I have followed Russ, aka The Domestic Man, on Instagram for a couple of years now. I’m not sure how I discovered him, probably through one of the other Paleo/Primal big names, such as Bill and Hayley Staley from Primal Palate or maybe the Paleo Parents or Nom Nom Paleo…the point is that I have always found Russ’ approach to Paleo intriguing – Russ eats white rice; and I believe you will not find a single recipe for a dessert on his blog and definitely there are none in this cookbook! That to me is pretty awesome. (Ironically, I have not been following his blog regularly; something that now I’ve already changed by subscribing to the email list.) Russ is a doyen in his own right and a wealth of information and ideas! He is also what I would call a “common sense eater”.

nuggets

I have been Paleo/Primal since the end of 2012; and since then, I’ve learned, altered my template, and have seen a number of changes in the dogma (for example, white potatoes were still vilified when I started and are now widely accepted as a whole food and safe starch). What I love about Russ’ perspective is that it is not pigeonholed in strict theories. It’s an approach personally adapted to fit his health and lifestyle needs and those of his family; and it’s constantly evolving as he’s learning. Russ brings together in his “common sense” approach all of these concepts: Paleo/Primal, The Perfect Health Diet, Weston A. Price Foundation principles, A Whole Foods Approach and JERF – Just Eat Real Foods. As I mentioned, he and his family regularly eat white rice for example and include healthy dairy products. You can learn more about Russ and his philosophy here.

4corners

He goes a step further with a formula he has created called “The Four Corners Plate”. This is described on his website and in Paleo Takeout and is a useful template for those starting off in this healthy and nutritious diet/lifestyle.

Paleo Takeout is Russ’ second cookbook (the first is Ancestral Table) and with which he just made the New York Times Bestseller list! (Congratulations Russ!) Russ’ story is amazing, having suffered a stroke at age 24, and fully recovering and then finding a healing path for his autoimmune condition through the Paleo diet. His blog is full of delicious recipes and health tips, presented in an elegant, no-nonsense fashion with an historical and international approach which makes reading it a pleasure and a learning experience.

And Paleo Takeout: Restaurant Favorites Without the Junk is a cookbook you will want to get now and keep forever! It’s a cookbook every respectable home cook must have. I kid you not. I’m not using a marketing gimmick. I truly and really mean it. It doesn’t matter if you are Paleo or not. This book is amazing. You’re going to want to make every single recipe out of it, and on top of that you’re going to want to experiment with your own ideas (kind of like I did below in the picture).

 pork2

Paleo Takeout is like a condensed and very easy to understand cooking course in Asian dishes and other extras. Included are tutorials on how to wrap Asian rolls, how to bread meats and use different batters for frying (all healthy and Paleo-friendly), how to make crispy fried chicken, and how to make Asian meatballs (beef, chicken, pork and fish too!). Essential techniques such as stir-frying, grilling and thickening sauces with starch slurry are explained and demystified. And there are recipes for pizza dough, flatbread and hamburger buns!

Most of the ingredients are readily available in most larger-metropolis supermarkets; and the harder to find ones (such as possibly the Chinese cooking wine, mirin or rice vinegar) can always be ordered on Amazon or via Thrive Market if you’re a member; or if you have access to a local Asian market, I’m sure you can find them there. Once you stock up on the basics, you will not be able to put this book down. Maybe even before stocking up, you’ll experiment with the things you do have on hand inspired by Russ’ scrumptious recipes, like I did last week when I opened the book to page 59 and saw the picture of Chow Mein. I had completely different vegetables in the fridge, but was so determined to eat Chow Mein that night (just like takeout), that I adapted it as you can see on my Instagram feed.

notherone

All the recipes have easy to follow instructions, many of which are accompanied by suggestions for experimenting with more vegetables and different ingredients, encouraging the home chef to expand his/her knowledge and explore away, taking home cooking of our favourite and traditional takeout staples to another level!

And if you’re thinking you’re going to be stuck in the kitchen for hours prepping and cooking, think again! What makes Paleo Takeout even more amazing and a must-have cookbook is that the majority of the recipes can be made in record time! Forty-one (41) of the recipes can be enjoyed “Fridge to Face” in 30 minutes! Another 30+ recipes take between 30-60 minutes to throw together. The marinated dishes, although recommended to plan ahead for more intense flavours, can actually be enjoyed in less time. And lastly, there are about 40 recipes which you can make in batches, freeze and then quickly reheat for instant and very convenient satisfaction! You can’t beat that. Not even with real takeout! And remember, you’ll be cooking with wholesome ingredients, “giving you all the gratification and none of the regret”!

chinesereci

At the back of the cookbook is the pictorial recipe index, which is captivating and reads like a Asian/American takeout menu that has me salivating for all of the dishes since I opened the book. It is here, in the index, where I am incited to discover the essence of this cookbook and where I find myself …

… transported to Chinatown in NYC about to order a bowl of Singapore Noodles. Or should I first start with a bowl of Hot & Sour Soup? I’m always intrigued by how the flavours are such a contrast between the slightly sour notes and the spiciness. And I rather would like something warm. There’s Egg Drop Soup. Egg Foo Young. General Tso’s Chicken. An American favourite. Moo Goo Gai Pan. Moo Shu Pork …

I flip to the next pages. OMG! Wait. Could it be that I’m back in Hanoi about to eat Pho and bite into a fresh and fragrantly sultry Summer Roll? My eyes are starting to get bigger than my stomach…make that pho, summer rolls and an exotic Green Papaya Salad. Yes, definitely. I’ve even made that one at home after my trip to Vietnam a few years ago. I know that will not disappoint.

Pad Thai. That’s it. I’m having that. I love pad thai. Can you tell I have a penchant for sweet, salty and sour tang?

japarec

My eyes are quick though. I am back in Barnes (my neighbourhood of London) and about to order Chicken Tikka Masala from the little Indian restaurant down the street from my flat.  Or maybe I’ll have the Lamb Vindaloo. There’s Kare Kare too.

No… stop, there’s Pancit and Lumpia! I haven’t had those in ages! I used to eat them regularly when I was growing up in Spain and had what seemed like a gazillion Filipino friends. I remember learning how to wrap the rolls and selling the lumpia for our senior year fundraisers.

Alas! The takeout menu pages continue. Aren’t all takeout menus like being presented with a bunch of snippets of your favourite novels? There are more mouth-watering dishes. I can’t decide if I want to be American tonight. A bunch of crispy and juicy Fried Chicken in a Basket would be so delicious right now. Or maybe I could go for a pizza with extra garlic and a bunch of cool toppings like we get in Mystic… with this pizza I know I wouldn’t have a stomach ache afterward. Maybe I’ll have a Burger Party for two instead. And indulge in some Tzatziki Sauce to go with my burgers.

amreci

No that’s for another occasion. I’m doing Mexican tonight. The succulent cilantro-topped Pork Carnitas with a flatbread that looks just like soft corn tortilla shells look divine. Ummm…but I think I saw something a couple of pages back that was more irresistible.

I flip backwards because that’s what I always do with a menu, especially a takeout one. I read through it once and then I go back through it again. I must make sure that I get the best meal. There’s so much from which to choose… and I’m not sure what tickles my fancy today, right now, because takeout is like that: I can have whatever I want. And tomorrow I can pick and choose something new, exotic and different. And I’m losing patience with myself as I’m getting hungry. And everything is enticing.

Paleo Takeout is like no other takeout though. What makes it unique is that you know the ingredients of this takeout are not going to upset your tummy. You won’t have heartburn. You can eat gluten-, chemical- and guilt-free. And your health will thank you for it….

I’ve never been to Japan or Korea. Sure, I eat sushi all the time. I’ve made kimchi. But there are more intriguing dishes on this menu in this cookbook. The Haemul Pajeon or Korean Seafood Scallion Pancake looks beautiful. The ingredients sound fascinating together. There’s Dashi too. Ramen and Miso. Gyudon and something called Okonomiyaki! Yes, let’s grab the chopsticks Russ the publishing house so graciously included and take a bite … but I have to go back to the first page again. There was something there that is calling me …

shrimplobsta

I just landed on Gerrard Street and the neighbouring blocks. London’s Chinatown is boisterous and crowded, yet elegant and much cleaner than its NYC counterpart. Here one can find a range of very authentic Chinese, Korean and Thai food. I see myself walking toward the red arches and then my eyes stop at some crispy Spring Rolls. I love spring rolls. And there’s the Chow Mein that inspired my dinner last week. And there’s Vegetables in White Sauce. Honey Sesame Chicken. Szechuan Beef and Bam Bam Shrimp. Love that name. Oh my! There’s more…

Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. Now that I have never tried. “They say” it’s a Chinese-American dish and a takeout favourite. Lobster sauce. Are there lobster pieces in that? Or maybe some sort of lobster seasoning? Chinese soups and sauces are mysterious to me. How can there possibly be such sophisticated combinations of flavours in those sauces that are almost translucent yet so precisely thickened? … I’m having that. I could never replicate that at home, right? That makes it more tantalising.

But wait! I’m not on Gerrard Street. And I’m actually privy to the secret behind the sauce enigma. Shhh… you can be too… and you can make it tonight instead of having takeout! And you can’t beat the timing on this one. Twenty minutes from fridge to fork (and no lobster required)!

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Russ is letting me share with you a taste of what you can find in this amazing cookbook. Below you can find the recipe for Shrimp with Lobster sauce, which we’ve enjoyed now a couple of times and I’m sure you will too.

But wait, it gets better. You can be the proud owner of your own Paleo Takeout: Restaurant Favorites Without the Junk by entering my very first giveaway. However as there will only be one lucky winner, I would urge you to buy this cookbook as it will become a reference in your kitchen and you will never, ever want to rummage through your drawers again in search for a takeout menu, much less order from one!

Shrimp with Lobster Sauce

“To be honest, I had never heard of this dish until my family moved to the East Coast in 2008. I first ordered it out of curiosity; what the heck is lobster sauce, and why are they selling it for so cheap? … Turns out that lobster is a Cantonese-inspired dish made with broth and eggs, similar to other sauces that are poured over lobster dishes (there’s the connection!).”

~ Russ Crandall, The Domestic Man

Ingredients, for 4. Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

For the Slurry:

  • 3 tablespoons arrowroot starch (tapioca starch can also work)
  • 2 tablespoons cold water

For the Sauce:

  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup Chinese cooking wine
  • 2 teaspoons tamari
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 pounds (c. 1 kilo) raw shrimp, peeled and cut in half
  • 1/2 cup chopped carrots
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas, rinsed in cool water and drained
  • 3 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, thinly sliced
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 green onions, sliced

Method

Stir together the arrowroot starch and cold water to create a slurry, then set aside.

In a stockpot, combine the sauce ingredients and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once the sauce is simmering, add half of the arrowroot starch slurry and stir until thickened, about 1 minute, adding more slurry if needed. Add the shrimp, carrots, peas and mushrooms, return to a simmer, and simmer until the shrimp are just pink, about 1 minute.

Slowly pour the eggs though a fork into the sauce. Whisk gently with a fork to prevent the eggs from clumping, then allow to cook through, about 30 seconds. Stir in the green onions and serve.

Note: Dried shiitake mushrooms can be used in this dish; just soak them in warm water for 30 minutes before slicing.

Note from The Saffron Girl: I don’t like peas and I didn’t have shiitake mushrooms available. Instead, I used some leftover fresh cabbage that I had, slicing it julienne style and thinly sliced some brown button mushrooms. Because the cabbage is a bit tougher than the peas, I first allowed it to cook in the sauce’s liquid ingredients until almost tender (about 7 minutes). I then added the slurry and continued with Russ’ instructions. Also, I didn’t have Chinese cooking wine, and instead used half the amount stated in the recipe of regular (light) red cooking wine; hence the slightly darker colour. To compensate for the change of flavours, I added a bit more tamari than Russ calls for. 

This dish is really tasty and versatile. I used the leftovers as a sauce over some pork chops, as you can see in one of the pictures above. Delicious!

*****

G I V E A W A Y

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Ephemeral Time {Calves Liver à la Bordelais + Avocado and Radish Salad}

“This is the first time I’ve known what time it was…” Bree was ignoring both Mrs. Bug’s raptures and the [astrolobe] in her hands. I saw her meet Roger’s eyes, and smile – and after a moment, his own lopsided smile in return. How long had it been for him?

Everyone was squinting up at the setting sun, waving clouds of gnats from their eyes and discussing when they had last known the time. How very odd, I thought, with some amusement. Why this preoccupation with measuring time? And yet, I had it, too.

I laid my hand on [Jamie’s], where it rested on the box [of the astrolobe]. His skin was warm with work and the heat of the day, and he smelt of clean sweat. The hairs on his forearm shone red and gold in the sun, and I understood very well just then, why it is that men measure time. 

They wish to fix a moment, in the vain hope that so doing will keep it from departing.” ~ From The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

Time is a precious, ephemeral thing. When you’re in the midst of something, it seems like it will last forever, you have time to say things, do things, and leave things for tomorrow, mañana, mañana…. But when time goes by, you see how quickly it evaporated before your eyes, as if it never existed. It never was.

When we arrived in Connecticut last June, the days were still warm and the evenings long, boat rides were still possible and enjoying the kaleidoscope of purples, reds, oranges, and blues of the setting sun brought memories of our times shared in the past when we all lived here. We had the whole world ahead of us, many dreams and hopes (and possibly some apprehensions). Slowly, but surely Fall inched upon us with its foliage exploding in all possible hues of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. A sight to behold with one’s eyes at least once in life, as nature surpasses all conceivable dreams.

Autumn gave way to the bareness of Winter, that would this year prove to be a long and bitter one, literally and metaphorically. Branches now serving as the framework to nature’s delicate and perfect snow and ice sculptures…Winter seemed endless this year. It was the coldest the North East has experienced in over 30 years. That last winter that all the natives over a certain age can recall and tell you about. They describe in detail how they used to walk across the Mystic River and how cold and raw it was.

And then as the snow reluctantly melted away and we approached the equinox of Spring, time fell silent and still. But only for a moment. A fleeting moment. But a definitive moment it was. Soon we could see patches of grass again, the daffodils timidly peeked up through the ground, the deer finally ventured out on the marshes, and a fox or two skirted by our front porch… everything was coming back to life. Nature’s annual renewal.

The bright yellow flowers of the forsythia came and went so quickly it seemed like a reverie, and the pink blossoms of the magnolias exploded one day and then all of a sudden the ground was covered in a blanket of pink. We are now coming back full circle to azure skies, calm seas, lazy afternoons and welcomed breezes… Summer is almost upon us. But as I write this, time is flying by. It’s slipping away…Where has the past year gone? Have I really spent almost twelve months in Connecticut?

All things must come to an end, and soon I will be departing for Europe to resolve my divorce and soon my father will return home as well. We won’t be leaving as we came. And my family staying here won’t remain as they were. We’ve changed forever, although nature will remind us with the seasons that change is inevitable. Only time will tell us what the future holds for us all. It’s been a tough year behind us, filled with a great, irreparable loss whose emptiness will last until the end of time, and yet we have also been afforded the time to be together as a family again, my father, my late mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two lovely nieces and me. To enjoy each other’s company. Share tears, smiles and laughter. To give each other warm hugs that melt the heart. To cook and eat together. To be one.

It may be a long time before we have the chance to be one again. We will see each other separately I know. And technology will keep us connected even in the distance, even as many things will never be as they were. New times are ahead of us. And with hope and new illusions and a prospect of happiness or at least of peace, we go forward, holding on to time.

All the years I was living in Germany and later the two years in London, we travelled to Spain by car and traversed France from corner to corner, sometimes zigzagging, more often than not though in a straight line. I kept insisting we stop, take detours to see the historical towns and castles, but only a couple of times did we have the time. We were mostly on a schedule to get there quickly, squeese out as much time as possible being in the warm sun of Southern Spain, and then make our way back.

We did however, always make time to eat. And yet, with all those lunches and dinners (breakfasts don’t count for this dish), not once did I try calves liver à la Bordelais. Not once! That’s a very strange occurrence for me because whenever I’m travelling or in a new place, one of my first goal is to eat as much of the local cuisine as possible. My other goal is to see and experience as much as I can fit in within the limited time. I tend to exhaust every minute. My motto is that I never know when I’ll be back, and under such a premise, I cannot and will not waste time.

I discovered this recipe in Mimi Thorrison’s A Kitchen in France, A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse. Although I marked a number of recipes and read the book front to back in one evening, I’ve only made this dish, as I’ve not made the time to concentrate on others. I’ve made it now a number of times, changing things here and there and finally adapting it my way. My beautiful mom loved it the first time I made it for her; and my father and I have enjoyed it in the various adaptations I’ve experimented with. This last one, we both find the best. It’s less buttery and lighter.

It’s hard to source a good quality calves liver where we have been living. I find that essential and would suggest procuring organic, pasture-raised from your local butcher to get the full benefits of eating offal. And the type of butter is also important. I love Kerrygold salted (I could eat it with a spoon!).

The avocado-radish salad I put together on a whim because the radishes were so pretty and the avocado perfectly ripe. Add whatever toppings you like. I only used olive oil, lemon juice and salt and some pepper on the plate, as my father likes to keep things simple.

I hope you enjoy! Salud!

Calves Liver à la Bordelais

Ingredients, serves 2

2 filets of calves liver
4 shallots
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra virgen olive oil, plus some extra
2-4 slices of prosciutto
1/2 cup white wine
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper
arrowroot flower for dusting

Method

Rinse the calves liver filets and pat dry with a paper towel. Salt and pepper on one side and set aside.

Peel and julienne the shallots and the garlic. In a medium sized skillet, add 2 tablespoons of butter and the olive oil. Over medium heat, melt the butter and add the shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 8-10 minutes until the shallots are golden and tender. Add the white wine and reduce, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add 1 tablespoon of butter and stir well. Set aside, covered to keep warm.

In another skillet, add a drizzle of olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the prosciutto slices and cook, about 1 minute, turning over once. Remove from skillet and place on a plate.

Dust the calves liver filets with some arrowroot powder. And in the same skillet used for the prosciutto, add another drizzle of olive oil. Place the liver filets in the skillet and cook, about 3 minutes on each side.

To serve: place the liver filet on the plate, spoon some of the shallot sauce over each filet, and top with a slice or two of prosciutto. Garnish with parsley if desired.

Avocado + Radish Salad

Ingredients, serves 2

1 ripe avocado
1 radish
sea salt, freshly ground pepper
lemon juice
extra virgen olive oil

Method

Peel and slice the avocado. With a mandolin, slice the radish very thinly. Place the avocado on the serving plate and top with the radish. Drizzle some olive oil and lemon juice over top. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve.

Fish A-Flying {Halibut en Papillote, Fennel Mashed Potatoes, + Fennel Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts and Mustard-Oil Dressing}

Years ago, I was bitten by a flounder. It’s one of those stories that one can retell with a certain amount of humour and romanticise about, like we do with most of our myopic views of past events. I was working in the Education Department at the Mystic Aquarium and was asked to cover for one of the instructors on vacation. Part of the duties included feeding the fish and various other animals.

In the main education room, which was also used for birthday parties and special catered events, we had a large “touch and feel” tank with various crustaceans, some bivalves and a flounder or two, if I remember correctly.

Anyhow, I was feeding Mr. Flounder a plump and juicy shrimp placed on the tip of a long stainless steel stick whose purpose was to afford me a distance from Mr. Flounder’s teeth. Piece of cake I thought. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot it would seem. Don’t ever be fooled by an innocent and funny-looking fish I tell you, particularly one with two eyes on top. Mr. Flounder decided to forego the shrimp, jump out of the water and lunge himself towards me, taking with him a piece of the skin of my hand in the process. Needless to say, I was quite startled. Once I recovered my composure and Mr. Flounder had safely plopped back in the tank, I realised my ego was also slightly bruised. Who manages to get bitten by a fish, in an aquarium no less? My hand did sting a little and because it was a work-related incident, I had to report it and required a tetanus shot. But it’s a tale that got me a bunch of auntie-brownie points with my nieces back then – they thought their tita was just the coolest thing. Nowadays, they prefer to make fun of the incident and I get teased about it every now and then.

My nieces, one of them has already graduated university and the other is out of school for the Summer, work during the boating season, which runs from some weeks ago to sometime in the early Fall. They are extremely busy and finding time to get together and do things is not easy. But a week or so ago, my eldest niece called me and we spontaneously went out for lunch. I think unplanned outings are always the best. It was a miserable windy day with rain drizzling since the early morning and a thick fog that creeped in rather quickly and lingered way into the evening. But we still thought that venturing downtown Mystic was warranted instead of staying home. Mystic has a healthy population all year round, but it is in the Spring and Summer when it flourishes overflows with tourists and New Yorkers who own Summer homes in the area.

Yet the day we went out was still rather early in the season, so we were a little surprised to see that our first choice was closed for a private event and that the other choice nearby had a line of people waiting to get in. Not wanting to walk too far in the inclement conditions, we ended up at Anthony J’s. It’s a cosy little restaurant in a pretty wooden building parallel to the Mystic River. I had been there before, years ago and always liked the atmosphere. I’m not sure if it’s the same owner or not, but the food the other day was just as delicious as I remember. So in the end, as spontaneous things usually go, the end result exceeded our expectations.

We were seated at the far end of the restaurant, along the large stone wall, from where I could see part of the kitchen and the chef (who by the way was dressed in a rather unique outfit comprised of a white chef shirt and tomato-print trousers complemented by a tomato-print bandana). The warm ambience, the friendly waitstaff, and the elegant, yet simple dishes made with fresh, seasonal food reminded me of many places one finds in Ireland. New England is like that. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in the United States. The buildings are old, some from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, mostly made of stone and wood with a quaint charm. And it also has similar weather and lots of lush verdant fields to match.

Anyhow, we enjoyed a lovely time together, a decent conversation although we were both tired and a delectable meal. I had a halibut filet with a Thai-style sauce over mashed potatoes and we shared a fennel, prosciutto and parmesan salad.

The following day when I was thinking about what to make for lunch (ironically I had put out the halibut to defrost the day we went out), I basically replicated my lunch with the ingredients I had on hand instead.

Halibut is a meaty, white fish. It’s the largest flatfish and the flesh is juicy and needs very little condiment to taste beautifully. I generally don’t like to put too much seasoning on fish, as I prefer to let the flavours work on their own. The orange-coconut amino sauce with scallions and tomatoes is full of taste yet is delicate and not over-bearing. And the mashed potatoes with a hint of fennel add a nice contrast to the fish. As I endeavour to always include more than one vegetable in a meal, I served the halibut and mashed potatoes with some steamed rainbow chard. And finally, the fennel salad with the roasted pine nuts is just simply the perfect accompaniment, light, crispy and crunchy all in one. A perfect meal for a Spring day (or any day)!

Halibut en Papillote with Orange-Scallion Sauce

Ingredients, serves 2

2 halibut filets (with skin)
juice of one orange
orange zest/rind
2 tablespoons coconut aminos (soy sauce replacement)
12 cherry tomatoes
3 scallions
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
parchment paper

Method

Preheat the oven to 375F (190C). On a cookie sheet or another flat ovenproof metal dish, place a piece of parchment paper and fold the edges. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Place on the parchment paper. Salt and pepper lightly. Cut the orange in half, and squeese the juice over the fish. Don’t worry if you get some pulp on the fish. Pour the coconut aminos over each filet and sprinkle some orange rind/zest over each as well.

Clean and cut the scallion diagonally. Cut 8 of the cherry tomatoes in half and leave the remaining 4 whole. Place the scallions and tomatoes over and around the fish.

Place another sheet of parchment paper over the fish and folding the edges into the bottom sheet, make a sack. Bake for 15 minutes or until fish is done.

Fennel Mashed Potatoes

Ingredients, serves 2

4 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
1/4 fennel bulb, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
milk
fine sea salt

Method

Put the potatoes and fennel in a medium pot. Cover with water and an inch or so more. Place on medium heat and bring to a roiling boil, and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.

Place the tablespoon or so of butter in the pot and allow to melt with the heat of the vegetables. Add a couple of tablespoons of milk (your preference) and smash with a potato masher to your desired consistency. Add some sea salt to taste.

Serve the halibut filets on top of the mashed potatoes.

Fennel Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts and Mustard-Oil Dressing

Ingredients, serves 2-4

1 fennel bulb
mixed salad greens: arugula (wild rocket), spinach, other greens
hard, cured cheese
handful of pine nuts
olive oil
wholegrain mustard
lemon juice

Method

Cut off the stems and the outer hard part of the fennel. Use the hard part of the fennel for the mashed potatoes. (See above recipe.) Slice the fennel crosswise very thinly.

In a pretty salad bowl, place the amount of mixed salad greens that you desire. Place the sliced fennel over top and mix it a little with your hands. Shave some hard, cured cheese over top. I used Dubliner cheese that we forgot about and left to harden. (It’s delicious like this.)

In a small skillet, heat some olive oil and pour in the handful of pine nuts. Fry until golden brown, stirring frequently, just a minute or so. Immediately remove from heat and spoon over the salad without the oil.

For the dressing: I used 3 parts extra virgen olive oil to 1 part wholegrain mustard and the juice of 1/2 lemon. Mix well and allow for each person to pour over their own salad.

If you have leftover salad, since the dressing is not on it, it will last a couple of days in the fridge.

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