… I am fiddling around in Somerset, England. I have opted out of news updates from home. After sixteen years in London, my friends have sold up and moved out to the countryside. For less money than what they earned from their one bath, 3 tiny bedroom flat, they bought a large, rambling 17th-century converted court house on a couple of acres in a small village on the edge of the Mendip Hills. The landscape has an ancient beauty about it.

The countryside in the western counties is to food afcianados in London what the Napa and Sonoma Valleys are to those in Northern California. Both regions are known for their restaurants that steward the ingredients used in their food. But the restaurants in Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset, and the other counties succeed much better than Napa. The chefs of Napa Valley need to up their game. Few of them run establishments that offer meals that are grown or husbanded on the spot. Few of them serve meals as interesting as the one I had at The Pig Hotel (@thepig_hotel).

A Georgian house that now houses a hotel, restaurant, and small pig & vegetable farm, The Pig presents itself in the lobby and sitting rooms like an old fashioned country house. The dining room is a conservatory, whose window ledges and tables are covered with small potted plants and seedlings, many of them destined for the soil in the kitchen garden. I sat a table for one next to a strawberry plant. 

I was surprised to see on the menu only one dish containing pork. The Pig Hotel owns two adult pigs who enjoy the privilege of not being slaughtered. All the others are destined to suffer One Bad Day. When I was there, only the two permanent pigs were in residence. These two specimens were the most spherical pigs I’ve ever seen. One was sound asleep, sprawled flat as a sphere can get, with feet outstretched. It snored so loudly that I feared it had apnea.

My lunch consisted of a starter, a midway dish, and a closer. No dessert. First up was freshly made beet chips, or crisps as they’re called here, with smoked cod roe, reminiscent of a taramosalata but made so more interesting by the smoky roe. 

After that delectable snack, I tucked into asparagus whose stalks were rolled in panko crumbs and fried, a poached pheasant’s egg, and a marvelous hollandaise sauce flavored with a mysterious (to me, anyway) mixture of herbs. Luscious.  

For my last course, I ordered goat belly on curried quinoa with pickled red onion, which was great. Another smokey flavor, the goat belly neither too unctuous nor too stringy. But I should have stopped at the asparagus. 

When I arrived on foot at 12:15, the dining room was empty, just the way I like it for at least the start of a meal. Slowly, the room filled up. Outside the glass walls of the conservatory-dining room, a herd of deer stood gawking at us in envy no doubt, on the far side of a low fence. A gardener emerged from the walled-in vegetable garden with a plastic container and foraged through the high grass by the fence.

The wait staff was solicitous and friendly. They did not hover. European fine restaurants are oases of soft-spoken diners. I love it. I wish California restaurants would promote peaceful environments without the solemnity of church (I’m talking to you, French Laundry). And the bill they presented me was a pleasant surprise. £51 ($69 on my card) for three courses and two glasses of decent wine. That’s a Napa meal without the trimmings.

Close to two hours after I arrived, I waddled out to look at the vegetable garden, the pigs, and the view. Then, I turned into the road with the fields of mustard at its peak. The two and a half miles did little to offset the meal, but completely sold me on the west country. O Somerset! 

The Pig Hotel near Bath

London offers a ongoing and ever-updating curriculum of on how to live well in a city that is too expensive to live in. No other city I spend time in offers as many free or nearly free diversions for families as London does. Granary Square, the South Bank, the Tate Modern, Regent’s Park, the list of public spaces that make you feel like a circus is always in town goes on and on.

This trip, I learned that…

1. …bubble gum on the sidewalk can have redeeming value. Ben Wilson (whose Wikipedia page will explain his mission) looks for gum squashed on all kinds of pavements and transforms them into miniature works of art. On the corrugated metal path of the Millennium Bridge, which spans the Thames between Tate Modern and the area around St. Paul’s, Londoners have commissioned him to create memorials to dead family members; schools have sponsored little emblems; newly-engaged couples pay him to commemorate their troth. Children and adults walk across the bridge bent at the waist in search of his little gems.

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2. …the World War I memorial art installation at the Tower of London is best seen from an aerial perspective. 350,000 ceramic red poppies on stem-like stakes flood the moat around the Tower’s outer precincts to symbolize the number of lives lost in the Great War. From the parapet surrounding the walls, the poppies stand in striking contrast with the green grass growing underneath. But why does it flow from the Tower? What is the intended symbolism? And why skimp on the number of poppies flowing out the window, leaving the rickety scaffolding supporting them in plain sight? I was more impressed by images taken from above.

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3. …London’s closest beach town, Broadstairs, would be recognizable perhaps to Charles Dickens but definitely to  Graham Greene. With the original Bleak House in the background, a brass band played Elgar’s “Nimrod” under cloudy skies. I hoped in vain the crowd of mostly seniors would break into “Underneath the Arches.” A round of mini golf finished off a wonderful day spent on the sandy beach in our cardi’s.

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4. … and finally, the Anchor & Hope restaurant is as good as it was the last time I ate there seven eight years ago. This place puts the lie to the worn-out notion that British food is bad. Worth every penny. Check out their menu.

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And now, off to the airport. Next stop, New Jersey!

 

 

 

DSC02526As of today, Sunday, I’ve been in Bordeaux for twelve weeks. Tomorrow I fly to London, where I’ll spend nine days. This morning, I stayed in until I could check-in online and then ventured out for my last major tramp around the city. The entire bordelais population seems to have had the same idea. At the market along the Chartrons quai, I bought my last dinner in Bordeaux: sliced magret de canard and roasted vegetables. I sat down for one last plate of oysters with a little glass of white whine. Then I took the tram back to Place Victoire. Along the way, the pretty 19th-century look of the city charmed me again as it has every day since I’ve come here. I will miss the wine seller in Be the Wine (who has sold me some really excellent whites lately), the two guys who own Books & Coffee, and the very friendly people who work in Bon, C’est Bio on cours Victor Hugo. But I have finished what I came her to do and it’s time to go. I’ve been too immured in my comfortable studio flat. Time to go play with my fairy godchildren in London. A short stop in New Jersey and then off to northern California.

But what was I thinking? Getting out of France on September 1, the Grande Rentrée? Clearly, you should not take travel tips from someone who books her own travel on what is reputedly the busiest travel day in the French calendar.

P.S. I took the photo above a couple of weeks ago. But it captures how the city looks today.

Books & Coffee, 26 rue St James.

Four times last week, I packed up my laptop and took it to this café on rue St James. Three very gracious and attentive youngsters in the twenties work their butts off to offer coffee, tea, modest pastries, and a limited lunch menu for reasonable prices. I ordered tea most days, but I saw other customers order coffee in all forms, from an espresso to the bulbous glass beakers that look like they’re do equally well for cooking crack.

The wood floors and metal shelving, the leather sofa and seats, and the tables of the interior gives the place a soothing library feel. A counter runs along a big side window and has books, children’s books, and toys to keep children occupied while their foot-weary parents recharge their batteries. I’ve had lunch there twice: a very good, custardy quiche and small salad the first time and a chicken-burger with bacon the second time. Unpretentious, tasty, and satisfying.

IMG_0084I’ve noticed that tea shops and cafés all over Bordeaux and in Biarritz carry two brands of ironware teapots made in Japan. The better quality brand, Oigen, does not seem to be widely available in the States. The design of these pots is beautifully simple. A cast iron Oigen teapot weighs around three pounds and is glazed on the interior. The ones I’ve seen here (and the one I bought at left) are priced around 98.50euros. On US sites, if you can find them, the pots run about $150. They eliminate the need for a tea cozy, because they retain the heat.

Iwachu teapots are less expensive, noticeably lighter, and the varieties of designs less appealing — to my eye, anyway. Far more examples of this brand show up on Amazon.

 

DSC02523When walking toward the city center, I pass a little wine shop down the street from me on rue Leyteire that also claims to be a wine club, although I’ve never been by or gone in when anyone else is there except the owner or an employee. That probably has more to do with the hours I keep than with the business they handle. At first, I was disappointed that the young woman who works there during the week speaks English, but she is so nice and helpful that I try and make that the store where I get my wine. The wines they carry are not exclusively from Bordeaux and I’ve liked every one of them. Their prices are affordable. In fact, on the recommendation of the woman, I bought a delicious white wine that has semillon blended in it for 5.90e. Not bad. It’s a cave that’s all heart and dedication to wine. I hope they get more business, because they’re a wonderful part of the neighborhood. Very convenient for the Marché des Capucins, too. Not sure I want to “be the wine” I want to see in the world, in the Gandhian sense, but I’m willing to drink it.

Apparently, they have only a Facebook page here.

85 rue Leyteire

Bordeaux, of course

DSC02521I didn’t come here to eat — well, my original intention to work on a project in France may have been driven just a tad by the pâté, oysters, cheese, and wine. Now I’ve reached the stage of life when a sense of obligation to follow Michael Pollan’s advice, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” nicely jibes with my eating inclinations. I like cooking and eating vegetables, meat weighs in my stomach too heavily, and ever since I cut far back on dairy, my annoying post-nasal drip has dried up. But I’ll eat anything that’s put in front of me and enjoy it. On my own, rabbit food just sits in me more comfortably.

Before I arrived, I had ambivalent feelings about spending almost three months here in Foie Gras Central. Eating out is expensive, for one thing. And Mark Bittman’s recent column about the decline in restaurant cooking in France rings true to me, although I’ve recently had outstanding meals in Paris. Here in Bordeaux, not so much. And as one commentator in a previous post said (I paraphrase), even when it’s good, the range of food isn’t very broad.

Le RechargeTo my great surprise, Bordeaux has really good natural food stores and some quite good, relatively inexpensive southeast Asian restaurants. Apparently, organic food stores can be found in all French cities. I wasn’t much impressed by the Naturalia chain in Paris. Here, I have a very satisfying range of choices. At C’Bon, C’est Bio on the cours Victor Hugo, I found almond milk, good vegetables, decent wine, good mustard, smoked salmon, and lots of other things I regularly graze on. My sister sent me a link to an English-language newsletter about France with an article about Le Recharge, a very cool little store here that sells unpackaged food and cleaning products. Customers have to bring their own containers and bags. They specialize in cured meats and cheeses as well as butter from the Basque region, too. Across the street from Le Recharge is a decent Thai restaurant, but I prefer going around the corner to the place Fernand Lafargue, where Santosha, offers very tasty rice dishes and noodles soups with rich, distinctly not-vegetarian broth. Right next door is Yes Mum, Bordeaux’s only fish-and-chips shop.

Vegetarians would have a pretty easy time eating in Bordeaux. Vegans would struggle. The Internet claims there is a vegan restaurant, Viva Las Vegans, but I haven’t noticed it on my daily walk down that street (The Bordelais seem to get a kick out of puns in English: on the same street as the mythical vegan restaurant is a wine bar called Wine More Time).

 

Our little band of beach warriors arrived by train in Biarritz, less than two hours from the Spanish frontier, in the middle of a thunder storm. The seven-year-old wanted to head to the beach regardless. The next morning, the skies still looked dodgy. We set out for the beach, only to find that swimming was forbidden that morning. That left us to the mercies of the town’s merchants. The town center has that slightly seedy, run-down appearance beach resorts tend to have. The houses in the surrounding residential neighborhoods looked like French adaptations of Swiss cottages. Outside the small covered food market were stalls of vendors selling antique linens, straw market baskets, rugs, and foutas (I’m coming home with four). We saw no Gucci, no Chanel, no Michael Kors, which was just fine with us. In fact, we had a hard time imagining Edwardian swells, including Edward VII himself, swanning around the place. The most interesting shops sold linen or spices, like piment d’espelette, the crushed chili pepper with a gentle that Thomas Keller made a point of promoting in his cookbooks. In the U.S., it costs fortune. Here, it’s pretty cheap.

Traditional macarons.

Traditional macarons.

Our best find, however, was the shop that sells traditional macarons, Maison Adam, which I learned about earlier this month in Florence Fabricant’s NYT column here. The shop wasn’t hard to find: right in the center square. We couldn’t decide whether the chewy macarons — no ganache, no flavorings, just pure almonds baked dark brown in the center — were better than the box they came in. We bought a box of macarons (12 euros) AND two of us bought the tin boxes the macarons used to come in (5 euros).

The weather on the final day was spectacularly serene and marine.

La Grande Plage, Biarritz.

La Grande Plage, Biarritz.