Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chateau Tours

We had an early start this morning catching up with our tour guide for a tour of the Chateau. We were set out to visit 5 chateaus with lunch in between and a short wine tasting in the growing region. We were running a little behind and were searching for a small bite to eat. We came up on a small farmer’s market that we meandered through. Here were bales of cherries, apricots and bananas, loads of white asparagus and artichokes, a few butchery trucks, a fish vendor, a salumi artisan as well as a few cheese artisans. After trying an assortment of cheeses and salumi, we realized we were short of time and utensils so we had to decide fast. We first found a chewy baguette, then some unpasteurized fromage blanc, that was tangy and filled with a grassy and garlicky flavor, and then finally, a banana to complete our breakfast. You know, the US dollar is very weak when exchanging for Euro so obviously everything is expensive for us. With more than 2 weeks to go, Nicole and I are paying a lot closer attention to the finances for the trip. The cost of our breakfast….3,50 Euros. Not bad!

The Chateau tour brings us out in the countryside that I had originally thought we would see. These stone fortresses were sometimes built on peninsulas in the rivers and were almost always surrounded by some sort of body of water. The walls were high, the towers high and the gardens vast. You have to think that before the Renaissance period, battle was a part of everyday life and the royalty in the chateau had to develop all forms of security and protection. Each chateau provided a small view into French history, but more on a personal level. There was a story behind each room and each picture. Every piece of furniture and tapestry made the image of life back then a little more real for us to imagine. The kitchens were the best for me. They seemed so medieval with large pots hanging over an open fire, enormous cutlery like various types of butcher knives and hacksaws, and huge meat hooks to hang and bleed the various types of game that was caught. The one cooking element that was used back then and is still used today was the wood burning oven. It looked exactly as it does now in California Pizza Kitchen.

The best Chateau had to be Leonardo da Vinci’s. He spent the last 3 years of his life there. We learned about his various contributions to civilization like the bicycle, the tank, transmission, the clock, the canon, the parachute, the helicopter, the airplane and the machine gun. Almost all his ideas preceded the true inventions, but he lacked the means to create the energy to produce such things. Most of his ideas needed an engine. All we could think was that he never got any sleep. His mind must have been burning with thought and ways to solve his engineering issues.
Another Chateau of note was Villandry. Here we saw an enormous garden about the size of 4 professional baseball fields. Each garden was perfectly manicured and each design carried a different meaning. In one garden, the bushes were trimmed and shaped to form symbols of love, passion, suffering and revenge. Another had a wide array of vegetables and herbs that would make any farmer jealous and another with a childlike maze of hedgerow bushes. Nicole and I lost ourselves in that maze just like in the movies.

All throughout the Loire Valley you will find a chateau. To build these castles they need stone. The builders tunneled through mountain to take that stone and the result was a cave. You will find a countless number of caves in the mountains of Tours and that is where they ripen cheese and store their wines.

We stopped in for a lunch at yet another brasserie. Again we had mixed results. Nicole had a simple, yet excellent salad with warm, breaded goat cheese on top and I started with an amazing salad that was topped with a crostini of sorts that was layered with warm mozzarella cheese, chorizo and tomato slices. This is where the disappointment started….I had Cabillaud in papillote which is notoriously French and is usually spot on because the fish is steamed in its own juices and the few aromatics that are placed in the foil wrap. Well, these guys managed to screw it up by burning this “papillote” into 1940s Berlin. The fish was stuck to the foil and Nicole even asked me to close it up because of the burning smell that was engulfing our table. Nicole’s skirt steak was too chewy for her to eat and her shallot “confit” was practically raw sitting atop her steak. This was no good what we are starting to learn may be typical of the brasserie genre. Our dessert was nice though. I had a decadent and light chocolate mousse and Nicole a moist fruit laden cake called Raspberry Claufoutis. This part of the meal made us forget about the last.

We headed back on our tour of chateaus enjoyed some wine along the way. Our tour guide was so knowledgeable about history and culture that I think he was able to give me insight on why I carry a French last name even though my family is mostly Dutch and Indonesian. He said that in the early centuries that there were many great minds in France that were not of the Catholic faith that were forced to leave France in order to find a home in a safe place. Those that left and that protested the Catholic faith went to places like the Netherlands and Germany where they became Protestants. This made sense to me…not sure if it is the answer why, but it made sense.
After our 9 hour tour Nicole and I needed a nap. We got some shut eye back at the hotel, but woke up with that passion of mine….hunger.

Being mindful of our budget we searched the best street food available. We walked down the Moroccan or Turkish part of town and found various vendors with a revolving side of meat filling up their windows. We stopped into Le Kasbah. Overall, this is a nice area with no real seedy element. If that side of town exists, this is it. We reluctantly enter the small “stand” and are a little confused because there is no menu and the extent of our French is “Bon Jour and Merci”. We are a bit surprised, but we are greeted with such a warm welcome by the young man behind the counter named Ismet. He is so happy that we are there and asking us about all the big movies of Hollywood with great enthusiasm. This definitely eases Nicole and me a bit. I point to the revolving meat and ask for two and I request for mine to be a bit spicy. We sit down contemplating the next day over a Cola Light and a Fanta Orange. My eyes light up as I see what is arriving….a huge mound of sizzling hot and crispy fries tossed with the perfect amount of salt and a huge Panini like sandwich. The bread is flat with a firm bite on the outside, but is completely soft on the inside. It is the perfect structure for the mound of filling. What Ismet shaved off with his 14 inch scimitar was a mixture of chicken thighs and veal shoulder marinated with tons of garlic, oregano, turmeric and some other spices that he wouldn’t reveal to me. This revolving meat mixture must have been cooking for at least 12 hours by the time we got to it at 11pm. The meat was succulent and tender because it simply rotated itself and basted itself in its own fat. This was an impressive meal all for 5 Euros. What a bargain!! Now, I am not sure if we have this at home, it is called Shwarma, but if we do, check it out!

See you in a few.

Traveling in Tours

Our dinner from the night was unremarkable so we were looking to have a great breakfast. Now, you have to understand that a common French breakfast is espresso, a croissant, and for most, a cigarette. Nicole and I were searching for an “American” breakfast with French ingredients and we found it despite the treacherous rain pouring down on us. Located in the heart of the Bayeux village near a magnificent 16th century cathedral that was spared of the war’s bombs, was a nice little boutique style café. We were the first to arrive at 9am as the owners sat at one of the tables eating crusty bread and drinking coffee as their calm white Labrador looked on. Nicole opted for a French classic a cheese quiche. The pastry dough was delicate and tender and the filling so rich and creamy that we knew it was fresh cooked right out of the oven. I opted to build my big breakfast by starting out with tea and juice (I can’t seem to shake this throat and cough problem that I brought with me from the States). Then I added a crepe with strawberry jam that was delightful and then my queen the Croque Madame. This is one of my favorite dishes that we played with at the Getty Restaurant. I may have a French last name, but I wanted to see how the real French do it. A thick slice of lightly toasted brioche with salted country ham, melting gruyere and butter topped with another slice of toasted brioche, more melted gruyere, but this time browned and, the grand finale, a perfectly cooked sunny side up fried egg on top. I burst the egg with my fork and watched the gooey pumpkin colored yolk drip down the sides of the sandwich. All this richness was perfectly balanced by a butter lettuce salad tossed with a light tarragon and mustard vinaigrette. Yes, all this at 9am.
We left the café to find the Battle of Normandy museum. We have been pretty good about getting around without being lost, but not this time….and what a time, the rain was coming down harder than I have seen since the El Nino days. We walked down each cobblestone corridor and passed each war torn building in search of the main road with no luck. Finally we found it and found the museum. The damage was done….Nicole’s shoes, socks and jeans were soaked. My jacket took in too much water and I was soaked, but we made it and we made that journey so we were going to see the museum.

We jumped our train to Tours which is about 3 hours south of Paris. Tours is located in the Loire Valley which is one of France’s many wine countries. What I pictured of Tours, rolling hills of grapevines, a lush river framed by greenery, was not the reality. Instead, we arrived in a quaint city filled with young students surrounded by relatively modern buildings and shops. It reminded me a lot of Ventura Boulevard with all the boutique shops, a clean look and the busy foot traffic. What we discovered is that the city of Tours was completely demolished to nothing during the War so that almost everything had been rebuilt since.

Like for every new city, Nicole and I set out on foot to explore. We spent about 3 hours walking, shopping and munching on giant cookies that were actually about the same size as my head! Finally the thirst factor kicked in and we stopped at the local college pub and enjoyed a few Belgian beers and shared some funny memories of our past.

Nicole did some research on places to eat in Tours so we searched out the restaurant Brasserie Bure. We were feeling a little jaded at this point about the food in Brasseries. There are at least two brasseries on every corner, but every time you enter one it is a gamble. The brasserie has such potential to be great because of their availability and ambiance, but most of the time their food has been mediocre at best. This has been a big surprise to me in our visit to France. This time, the brasserie was good. We started with a plate of oysters (Nicole’s new favorite food) which were excellent. They were medium sized with a briny and slight cucumber flavor to them. They nicely accented with a traditional red wine mignonette. We then had salmon rillettes which are poached salmon that has been pulverized with butter, a little mayonnaise and then laced with nice slices of smoked salmon. We spread this on our toasted brioche triangles and enjoyed another good appetizer. Our main entrees arrived and I was more impressed with mine than Nicole with hers. Nicole had the Cabillaud (Cod) which seems to be popular here. It had potential to be great, with her ratatouille wrapped in filo dough, but the fish was horribly overcooked. On the other hand, my meal was excellent. I had the entrecote (rib eye) with a rich Roquefort sauce and haricot vert. The beef was tender with sea salt crumbled on top bringing out even more beef flavor. The Roquefort sauce was unnecessary because of the great flavor of the beef, but never the less, was delicious. Haricot vert again….this may be my favorite vegetable besides spinach. Overall, this dinner was successful especially with ½ bottles of wine we enjoyed. Both came from the Loire, a Vouvray and a Chinon which I believe is a Cabernet Franc blend.

Tranquility sets in....

D-Day Beaches

Our stay in Paris came to a close and I still can’t get over how excellent our dinner was the night before. I will definitely recommend this restaurant to the next person I know visits France. We awoke to a dark and cloudy sky which had me intimidated. The last thing you want on a busy travel day is rain.

We arrived at our train station an hour early to Nicole’s dismay. I have this real problem, a burning desire inside me to be organized and on time for everything, so no risk can be taken when it comes to trains and their punctuality. At times, this desire will awake me in the middle of the night just to organize a few things a few feet away. Some may think it is crazy, but I like to call it a “Beautiful Mind”. However, the one desire that always conquers me is hunger and it was on a rampage again. Surprisingly, even the train station in Paris takes their food seriously. I was able to find a fresh and crisp baguette with butter and saussion sec, which is the French version of chorizo. It does not have the punch of flavor that paprika and garlic bring to the Spanish version, but it is still filled with a subtle French style flavor boost. Nicole quietly enjoyed her tender, buttery and slightly sweet croissant.

I have anticipated our visit to the Normandy region for two reasons. The first is obviously to explore the important history that occurred there during World War II and to pay my respect to those who sacrificed so much for freedom and to enjoy Norman food. What I have learned throughout my readings about the food of Normandy is that it focuses on deep down rustic and earthy dishes like pot roasts and stews because of their rainy weather and then highlighted by their artistic approach to Camembert cheese and Calvados, an apple cider that they turn into brandy.

We approached Bayeux, a small village in the region of Normandy with a population of about 19,000. We scurry for our hats when the thunder blasts and the hovering black clouds shoot rain over the green pastures dotted with thoroughbred horses and numerous hedgerows obscuring views of what could be around the next corner. The village is small and quaint. There are not many people around except for a few tourists and tour guides. There are plenty of advertisements painting sides of small stores and billboards of anything D-Day and its history. There are no taxis in sight so Nicole and I decide to hump it to the motel. We are a little lost, but come up on a small map and our hike began. We tugged our oversized luggage in the drizzling rain. We found our motel about 2 miles along the round and up a steady incline. It did not bother us though, because we decided a few days earlier that we have to earn all the wonderful meals we are going to enjoy.

A D-Day tour was number one on the agenda. As soon as we secured that, lunch was necessary. Our time constraint prevented us from leaving the motel premises, so we decided to eat in their small restaurant. The service was amicable, and I must say, their food surprised me. I had the “menu” (or prefix) and Nicole the vegetable lasagna. The prefix menu included an appetizer buffet of cured meats, fruits, various composed salads, and “peel and eat” shrimp. My second course was a rustic Veal Roast with a Mushroom Cream Sauce and the best haricot vert I have had. The green beans were simply sautéed with salted butter, but they were tender and perfectly cooked. They were not overcooked, but not undercooked either. I was completely satisfied with this meal.

Our tour guide arrived promptly and we piled into the van. The guide was friendly and it was a relief that his English was good. JD, the guide, shared his in depth knowledge of the history of the invasion of Normandy. Operation Overload, what the Allied forces called their mission to make this amphibious assault on five different Normandy beaches, was a bold and brave move by the Allies that would suffer many losses, but it was their thought that was the only way to take back Europe from the Germans. The estimated loss of troops for that day dumbfounded me – 15,000 between the U.S., Britain, Canada and a small contingent of Polish, French, and Dutch soldiers! It is ironic that this enormous battle would take place in Normandy. This same place the Normans, or better known as the Vikings, would set off on all their missions to conquer other parts of the world.

We first visited a British Museum on Gold Beach which focused on the humungous artificial harbor named Winston that was built in England and shipped over the channel. This strategic move and its execution were believed to be the absolute key to success in the Normandy region. There were still pieces of the harbor in the ocean and on the beach when we arrived. What amazed us is that after one day of the invasion, this harbor was being assembled while under fire. Apparently, by creating a port city in the middle of all the beaches, the Allied forces were able to transport more supplies and at a faster rate that would serve as the catalyst to our success in liberating France.

The American Cemetery was somber, but beautiful all at the same moment. The simplicity of the white cross tombstones, and the occasional Jewish star, aligned perfectly with waves crashing in the background gave praise in such a remarkable away to all those that sacrificed. One must go to feel the aura that surrounds this area. This was truly a time to be respectful and, most of all, thankful for everything we have and everyone we have. Nicole and I do not have any known family or friends that passed in World War II so we did not search out anyone specifically, but we did notice 309 tombstones, in particularly, that made us reflective. It was those that were unidentifiable that read “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known but to God”.

The most interesting site on this tour was Point Du Hoc. This was a 100 yard high cliff, right above the crashing waves on shore, where 225 Army Rangers attacked a German stronghold loaded with four 115mm canons protruding from reinforced concrete barricades. Our guide told us that this area was left exactly how the Rangers left it during the war. The concrete barricades were demolished, the cannons were inoperative, and there were a wide array of 40 foot craters created by the US air support dropping 500 pound bombs on the area. These groups of Rangers are honored for their bravery because this stronghold had a perfect defensive position on the other beaches being invaded. At the end of the day we were left with only 90 soldiers from this battle. Again…the ultimate sacrifice. It makes one think about the things one stresses about in this day and age.

After this great tour, dinner was more essential rather than a time for exploration, so we stopped into our popular motel restaurant. This time Nicole had a French omelet that was so burnt I’m surprised it came off the pan and I had an Entrecote Steak (Rib-Eye) with Béarnaise Sauce, Fries and Haricot Vert. The steak was so chewy and tough that not even the sharpest machete could cut through this. This dinner was an absolute waste of calories and money and should serve as an embarrassment to the country of France. It barely deserves mention in this writing.

The history of D-Day was definitely the highlight of this day and all we had to do was sacrifice some bad food and a lot of rain. We’ve got it good.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Last Day in Paris

Our last day in Paris has come too fast. We have a feeling we will be saying that a lot on this trip because of our quick stops in such beautiful cities. I can't say I love Paris like most, but I can say that I like Paris very much....I might be flirting with loving Paris if I had a few more days to experience it. It is a true haven for those who enjoy food, cooking and drinking. The city is built on this foundation. I think the city itself is beautiful, the night life is invigorating, and daily lifestyle seems intriguing. Nicole and I spent our day walking the streets searching out cafes, brasseries, patisseries, boulangeries, epiceries and even found the time to haggle with some artists struggling to sell their unique oil paintings outside of the D'Orsey Museum.

We started the day with yet another toasted baguette from a street vendor in front of the Sacre Couer, the highest point in Paris beside the Eiffel Tower. The place was loaded with tourists and equally African immigrants. These guys were very aggressive and all I could think of was blood diamond as they prevented Nicole and I from passing before knotting our fingers with some cheap multi-colored yarn telling us it was African tradition to make a wish while being suckered into paying 10 Euros for some bracelet that we were going to cut off once we got out of there. We kept the bracelets on until we left the area just so other Senegalese men wouldn't tie us up with their yarn as well.

We jumped on the metro with the intention of starting an urban hike seeking out photos of different restaurants, fish stores, bakeries and other food epicenters. The hike started when we exited the metro and climbed 22 flights of stairs just to reach daylight. Tears dripped from our eyes as we reached the pinnacle and realized our accomplishment. My thighs haven't burned that much since my high school football days.

We bounded street by street taking pictures and sampling what the city had to offer. We visited the fish shop and saw all sizes of shrimp from tiny quarter sized versions with their head on to 1/2 pound shrimp tended to intimidate those that considered purchasing it. We saw callibaud which is a beautiful medium size white fish similar to cod, tiny bay scallops still in the shell, and St. Jacques scallops plump and juicy with their roe still attached.

The boulangerie/patissier was a delight. The smell of fresh bread arranged in baskets and canisters all over the shop seemed more like decor than items for sale. The pastries were enticing as well. I couldn't resist as I picked a banana chantilly that I practically swallowed whole it was so delicious. A thin and tender pate a choux dough filled with banana cream, fresh banana, whip cream and all topped with striations of caramel and chocolate. Nicole tried Le Duo which was 2 extra large profiteroles glued together with vanilla butter cream and one filled with bitter chocolate and the other sweet caramel.

We continued with our photos of restaurants trying to gain inspiration and understanding of what Paris' dining scene is really about. Along this trek we stumbled upon an Epicerie - basically a specialty food shop. This store was like a dream for someone like me. Imagine a store the size of your largest supermarket, but filled with every cured ham made in Europe, every truffle foraged in Europe, every fish, every cut of meat, every vegetable, and every specialty item made in the European Union. I only wish that Los Angeles had a piece of this - a place to buy quality fresh fish, specialty breads, hard to find condiments, and specialty meats. It is one of my goals to bring this to my small town we call the Valley.

We made it back to the hotel and realized that our feet payed to bill of our ambition. Nicole's feet were swollen and I napped for 2 hours. Even so, it was our last night and we had to make it special. We found a highly recommended restaurant nearby that actually still had a reservation available at 10pm. We made the walk to Sinseng, an ultra chic and modern restaurant in Paris' 6th district. The area was busy and filled with young locals. We walked in were greeted cordially by the host. He walked us to our table as we took in the cream colored walls kissed with hologram images of lipstick laden lips and floral scenes. The seating was purple velour and fit in perfectly with the rest of the scene. We were definitely the only English speaking customers so we knew it was a good place. We started with an exceptional "snack". It was a large raw Atlantic clam that was tossed with Jambon de Pays foam, leeks and lemon. All this left in the shell and taken as a shooter. If you could only see Nicole and my eyes light up in pleasure.

Second, Nicole had a crab mousse that she was not too pleased with, but she finished it anyway. She expected it hot, but it ended up being a cold appetizer....something always gets lost in translation. I had the white asparagus with poached quail eggs, Parmesan emulsion and smoked duck pistou. Outstanding! Perfect balance by complimentary flavors. Each component picked up the previous creating a luxurious setting for my palate.

Our main dishes were excellent as well. Nicole raved about her Herb Crusted Veal Loin with Porcini stuffed Macaroni....that's right macaroni stuffed with mushrooms and truffles. This was all finished with a 4 spice infused veal reduction. The veal was tender and the the sauce surprisingly pulled the whole dish together. This received a perfect 10 from both Nicole and I. My dish was creative, but didn't blow my mind. I had a seared tuna loin that was stuffed with foie gras mousse. I have tried this combination before and it proves to be a perfect marriage. The rich foie gras lends the perfect hand to the lean tuna loin creating an enthusiastic finish....which is exactly what I did, finished every single bite.

Dessert was an orgy of chocolate and banana. All this on one plate - chocolate creme brulee, banana caramel, banana ice cream, banana in banana liqueur flambe with lime, and decadent flourless chocolate cake. I'll tell you what, to my dismay, this worked and I couldn't wait to apply something like this in my next kitchen.

Finally, the best part of the evening after various conversations with the waiter and his wonderment of how I understood so many words on the menu, I revealed that I was a chef. He intern invited me into the kitchen and meet the chef. The chef and I were about the same age and he was doing this food out of a kitchen smaller than the Getty's.

Sinseng has been our best meal in Europe hands down, and now, after meeting their chef/owner, I feel even more inspired to go down the road less traveled.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Paris at Night

Nicole and I stayed aggressive in our attempt in seeing as much of Paris as we could in 3 days. Imagine an old world metropolis built for horse carriages with roads laid in brick and then add the modern world of technology, fashion, over population and cars and you get Paris. This is the definition of a big city. It is busy with cars and pedestrians, it is alive with tourism and shopping, and it is lit with vibrant music and neon lights. Los Angeles is large and busy, but Paris is "alive", breathing with energy that only daily interaction, we feel much more safe here.

We started the day with our local street vendor and picked up a full baguette that was loaded with brie cheese and jambon de Bayonne, basically a salt cured ham done in the style of the south of France similar to proscuitto. The white baguette is then dropped in a panini press and serve completely flat with grill marks, warm ham and melting cheese. Just to cut the richness, the young lady added some fresh tomatoes just before grilling. This was an excellent breakfast "on the go" as we walked down the Rue de Rivoli toward the Louvre Museum.

The enormous museum laughed at us as we attempted to see it all. By the time we reached the Greek antiquities I was desperate for a small break on a bench in the tapestry room. However, we were able to see the Angel of Victory, which was breathtaking, Venus de Milo, A Dying Slave by Michal Angelo, Cupid, Jupiter, the Mona Lisa and various other pieces from the Orient, the Middle East, Italy, Greece, Spain, France and the Netherlands. The mere size and diversity of this museum is the reason of its obvious fame.

We headed west, but had to stop for a cola. Our thirst overcame us and we had to pay for that desperation. Travelers, be weary of where you spend your money in Paris. We asked for 2 cola lights which we received, but when we received the bill for 15 Euros we were shocked to say the least. That is basically $21 for 2 medium cokes!!!

Anyhow, we checked out Notre Dame de Saint Michel, a few bridges and then enjoyed the view over the River Seine. We finished our day with our lunch at around 5pm. I can't remember the name of the brasserie, but it was special. It was on a quiet street across from a boulangerie (bakery) and a poissoniere (fish market). We took a seat on the patio on watched as locals headed home to their flats preparing for a Friday night in Paris. The meal here was amazing. I had mussels that were steamed in white wine and shallots that were served in a rustic cast iron pot that was set on a stand with a candle underneath to keep the broth nice and warm. You add a chewy baguette and there you have France. I also ordered the charcuterie plate that came with country ham, sauccison sec, which is a dried sausage, and some form of a French salami. This was all served with cornichons (small salty and tender pickles), pickled onions and the spiciest dijon mustard I have ever had. The highlight of the meal was Nicole's dish. She decided to order the house special which had no name...just a description. Her meal arrived in an old and beaten up cast iron skillet. Garnishing the dish was an freshly cracked egg that was baked to perfection. Underneath was bubbling and browned ementhal cheese that was rich, creamy, and bursting with a truffle flavor. Then there were sauteed mushrooms, fresh tomato, and ham. This rich concoction was blaring with flavor and screaming to me to serve at some point in the future. To soak up all the creaminess, the chef cleverly placed a few slices of baguette on the bottom of the skillet before placing all that love atop it. It was time to take a nap after this one.

We prepped for the evening as my cousin Natascha and my aunt Stenny were on their way to pick us up from the hotel for a night on the town. Mind you, I haven't seen this cousin our aunt in over 13 years! We caught up in the lobby over a glass of champagne like we saw each other last week. The excitement oozed out of all of us as we got ready to go. Natascha is a fashion designer and she was dressed in true Paris style. She is slender and attractive and was rocking knee high boots, black capris, a glittery white top and a glittery black derby hat a la Michael Jackson. Only this woman could get away with this as the words "oo la la" jumped out of her mouth every so often.

She drove us around town in an over sized Audi SUV. What an amazing vehicle, but I think to big for the streets of Paris as she jumped a few curbs and hit some guard rails on the way to Le Suite....her friends restaurant who happens to be the girlfriend of Jamoraquai. The restaurant was chic and painted in all white. The lights were dim and the room accented with rose colored booths and drooping curtains. This room was the anti Hollywood in terms of dark colors, but was filled with the Hollywood type - beautiful men and women in their late 20s smoking, drinking champagne, laughing and dancing at their tables. There was even a DJ bumping the latest house music in the corner of the dining room. Despite the scene, I got the sense the food was serious. We started with a lime marinated tuna tartare that I wolfed down in a matter of seconds. The assertive tartness cut the richness of the tuna effectively. I followed with Local Cod fish that was seared with the skin on and served over small white beans and a cocoa bean reduction. Interesting, but even more delicious. I haven't had fish cooked that perfectly in a long time. Nicole had Seared Ahi served with a Thai peanut sauce. I think she scooped up everything on her plate before I got a chance to try it! We proceeded with more champagne and some serious conversation about opening a restaurant. You see, Natascha was a young business owner at the age of 21 and now had 17 years of experience to share with us. She did not tell us how to do it, but chose to motivate us and make us understand that it is perfectly normal to feel scared before making a big change.

Starting dinner at 10pm for Nicole and I is new, but we adjusted quickly as dessert arrived and the restaurant turned into a club at midnight. Layer after layer of club goers filled the restaurant and the music got louder. There was no way to resist the thumping of the speakers and we all spent the rest of the night dancing and gawking at all the mini skirts and the fashionable men. We finally got our inside look on Paris fashion and night life and we were not disappointed.

Natascha and Stenny's hospitality was ground breaking. This whole trip is repeatedly drilling something into Nicole and I - being nice, being friendly, and being welcoming is so easy. My whole family has done it from Amersfoort to Paris and we feel so indebted to them for all their graciousness. I can only hope that I am able to learn a little of this European culture of hospitality to take home to the states.

The night finally ended as Natascha found our way home on the GPS. The way the Paris streets are aligned, I'm surprised the computer could even found our way home. We walked through the hotel halls with a little buzz around 3am. Aaahhh, a night in Paris.

Friday, May 25, 2007

First Day in Paris

We are working on very little sleep. I think each night in Holland Wim, Sas, Nicole and I stayed up until 2am - 4am talking everything from family, career, food and politics. This night would be no different except for the fact that we had to wake up at 6am to catch a train to Paris via Amsterdam.

The Thalys train arrived. A bullet train of sorts with a sleek aerodynamic design and a scarlet and gray color scheme. Go Buckeyes! A friend of mine recommended that we buy first class tickets so we went for it. I think it was worth it because it gave me peace of mind from defending ourselves from the anticipated theivery that us Americans are trained to watch out for while in Europe. Let me tell you, on this train, in first class, the special treatment was noticeable. We had large seats, leg room and foot rests. The funny part was that we were offered so many complimentary items like juice, coffee, breakfast cookies, pretzels, baguettes and we declined on all of them opting for our water bottles and the awesome lunch Wim packed for us. His last gift of hospitality was a sack of green apple cookies, which are similar to fig newtons, cheese sandwiches, apples and sodas. The steward eventually said, "Will you still decline these offering even if they are free". We said yes.

Finally we had to accept the Thalys lunch option - Herb Crusted Rabbit Loin with Sauteed Vegetables, Greek Pasta, Sun Dried Tomato and Curry Sauce. The presentation and the flavor combinations were impressive for a train. The rabbit loin looked appetizing, but once we cut them we realized that they had been cooked to their 4th death. The sharpest knife had trouble cutting these loins and they were more stringy and chewy than the toughest tendons of beef. That was quickly tossed to the side along with the mushy orzo tossed with feta cheese. However, the sundried tomato was out of this world. It was the best tasting dried tomato I have ever had....nothing like what we consider know as sundried tomatoes. It was bright red, wrinkled with no toughness. The bite was juicy and both sweet and salty. The vegetables were nice as well. Perfectly sauteed leeks, carrots, and haricot vert with a little butter. I mixed this with the curry sauce that was supposed to go with the rabbit and I think I discovered a new dish.

The train ride was about 4 hours and I don't think it ever reached the 187 mph that the brochure claimed. We were trying to gain our bearings for Paris and asked the steward the best way to get to our hotel. His first question was, "Do you have baggage? Big, huh? Big, oversized American Luggage? Okay take the metro".

His comments were funny and expected, but his advice was right on. The Paris Metro should serve as the model for the rest of the world's public transportation. The entry and exit sights are highly accessible, the underground circuit of connections is immense, and the routes are clear and concise. Each tunneled maze leads to one attraction after another, so Nicole and I were able to see the Eiffel Tower gleaming in lights in all of its glory, the Arc de Triumph with the unknown soldier's flame burning away, and the Champs Elysses where we walked the night away while munching on a street vendor's Nutella Crepe.

For those of you that don't know, Nutella is my nemesis. This sweet and rich hazelnut and chocolate spread has to be arguably one of the worst things one can put in their body, yet I can eat it by the spoonful knowing the damage it is doing to me. Nicole watched me harm myself while she joyfully chewed on her 16 inch diameter sugared crepe.

Before the joy of the crepes we had to experience some hardship. Every journey comes with a rough road, but it is what we learn from it that makes us better. Well, we learned what not to do if we owned a restaurant. We saw a very inviting bistro with friendly waiters asking to sit down. We did and began to get real excited about my first meal in Paris. They had all the Parisian menu items that I have longed to eat while in France - Foie Gras Torchon, Duck Confit, Escargot and Charcuterie. I opted for the Torchon as an appetizer. While unimpressive in presentation and garniture, the flavor was right on and humbly served with toasted brioche. We then received our 1/2 bottle of St. Emilion wine which was blow your socks off outstanding. The intense blackberry and black pepper scents were singing off the wine glass. A very drinkable red that paired well with the Foie. The bad part starts now. An hour and a half later we receive our main courses. This is after the wine was finished and our water which was brought to us in a reused glass water carafe that still had dirty (I hope) soap spots on the nozzle. Oh well, so the service stinks, hopefully the food is great. No way. My duck confit leg must have been in the fryer for 20 of those minutes and then finished in the oven for the rest of the wait. Nicole's salmon was prepared sufficiently, but was paired with a lobster-tomato sauce that smelt so fishy and tired that Nicole questioned the fish's freshness. This was not pleasurable by any means and Nicole and I wondered that this could not be the food of Paris that everyone talks about.

Last Day in Holland

Our last day has come upon us and boy did it come fast. I had a feeling when we were at LAX just a week ago that our time in Holland would be too short. There is just too much family to see. So yes, it is a little sad, but at the same time I feel fortunate to have made the trip to see everyone. In addition, Nicole had a blast interacting with the family and learning a whole new side of me and the Dutch culture.

Our first priority of the day was to retrieve Nicole's computer from Nestle which was located in Dieman, but we had to be in Den Hague to visit my Aunt Irma at the same time. Problem is they are not very close to each other. Wim was kind enough to take Nicole to her work and Saskia, the kids, and I headed to Irma's so that we could get a head start on all the Indonesian treats she prepared. Unfortunately, Nestle was not able to fix the computer and we would have to come back later in the day.

We had lumpia, which are like egg rolls, but they are larger. These crunchy delights were filled with marinated chunks of pork, carrots and bamboo shoots which were all coated with a soy based bbq sauce. The rosales was also very special and looked like a lot of work. The filling is based on a roux with beef, carrots and potato. It is then highly seasoned as the pepper flavor permeated my palate, stuffed into a crepe then coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Crunch on the outside and soft on the inside. As you can see, we are playing with contrasting textures. The pastai looked like an empanada. The filling of ginger chicken and glass noodles stuffed into a flaky pastry dough and folded into a half moon shape with all the edges crimped. Lastly, we had one of my favorite desserts - spekoek. This is a spice cake made with clove, ginger, and nutmeg. The difference is that the cake is made with 2 batters. There is a white layer that alternates with a dark layer each about an 1/8 inch thick. I could only imagine how much work this has to be because each layer would need to cook individually. I think this is something I want to bring back to the states.

We spent our day with Irma learning about my mother as a child, about Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia, and about the struggles the colonizing Dutch citizens had during and after World War II. These stories really put things in perscpective when I realized that their struggles actually had to do with surviving, living and finding their next meals and my struggles, well, are mostly struggles with convenience. It made Nicole and I realize that when things are bad, they are really not THAT bad.

We began our trek back to Nestle in Dutch rush hour. Thankfully, the computer was fixed!! What a relief for all of us, but now we were to battle the traffic back to Amersfoort. Two hours later we arrived just in time for the last family dinner. We had a nice crowd with Ryan, Jan Willem, Hedy, Hans, Tjilly, Saskia, Wim, Jasper, Willamijn, Karlijn, Nicole and I. We went to a little Italian restaurant Sole O Mio and shared more laughs, more conversation and even more tears as we realized our visit was over. We had regular Italian fare like Spaghetti Bolognese, carpaccio, lasagna, veal scallopine and of course pizza.

What a week it has been. The generosity of Saskia and Wim was unprecedented. They made us feel like we were in our own home and went above and beyond with their giving. Nicole and I cannot wait for them to make their visit to the U.S. next year so that we can return the favor.

Well, tot ziens from Holland and bon jour from France. Our next stop - Paris!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shopping and Amsterdam

We continued our quest of solving Nicole's computer problem by visiting the Nestle Netherlands Division. We met some friendly colleagues of Nicole's that were more than happy to take a look at her computer. They were confident it could be fixed, but just weren't sure how, so they asked to keep the thing over night.

Saskia, who owns 4 maternity clothing boutiques, needed to do some shopping for her stores. Nicole and I made a run with her to the Wholesale Fashion Center. This was like nothing I had imagined. I envisioned an open air market with bales of clothing and groups of bargain hunters clamoring for the best clothes at the lowest prices. Reality was an elegant and enclosed fashion center containing clean and contemporary style clothing and accessory shops with young and hip sales men and women. Saskia bought accessories like costume jewelry and belts by the hundreds in order to fulfill the high demand at her various boutiques. By the time we left, I was completely exhausted....I didn't last more than 2 hours keeping up with the girls, but I was there to haul all the bags of items - probably 10 bags in all. However, we didn't sneak away from this center without getting a bite to eat.

After all the shopping work my appetite really built up. We walked into the dining area that looked like an over sized and modern Internet cafe. There were colored seats and tables in hues of royal blue, fire red and yellow. The room was lively and inviting. The menu was extensive and I was quite impressed for a shopping area to have such a nice menu. Saskia ordered Grilled Chicken Salad with Pine nuts, Nicole and Grilled Chicken Ciabatta with Avocado and Bacon, and I ordered like I wasn't ever going to eat again. You must understand that the Dutch and Indonesia mixed cultures a long time ago when Holland colonized the largest island chain in the world. Those influences still stand today. I ordered Chicken Satay with Atjar, Cassava and Peanut Sauce. The chicken was so tender and skewered on 4 large bamboo sticks and topped with a spicy and creamy peanut sauce and fried shallots. Along the side was cassava which is a chip with a background shrimp flavor and the crispiness of a rice cake. The atjar served as the balance to the whole plate. The yellow turmeric pickled cabbage and carrots were both sweet and sour with hints of salt which cut the richness of the peanut sauce. Of course the meal came with fries and mayonnaise as usual.

The day was passing us by at a fast rate and our time in Holland was coming to an end real soon, so I felt a need to get out and see some things. We had Saskia drop us off at the Grand Central Station in Amsterdam. Nicole and I got out only to see my other cousin Jan Willem catching a train on his way home from work. He showed us some areas to walk and Nicole and I began our journey. We walked down the main street while I refreshed my memory of all the sites and Nicole took in all sights - backpackers, canals, herring stands, trolleys, sex shops, prostitutes in windows, coffee shops and a lot of Argentinian restaurants. It was great fun and we shared some laughs as we contemplated the fact that there was an organized group tour of about 20 people walking through the Red Light District - that's right a tour group looking at hookers, porn stores, and reefer shops. We had a good laugh and yes, this is definitely a tourist attraction because where else do you see this amount of Liberalism.

Nicole and I finished our day in Amsterdam by people watching in Dam Square, sipping a cappuccino and munching on a Dutch delight, a thin waffle cookie filled with caramel. The sun fell, the air was chilled and Nicole and I started our train trip back home to Amersfoort.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Touring Holland

Today, Nicole and I got an earlier start as we begin to feel the strains of time. We have so much to see, but in a short period of time. Between family visits, travel time and searching for sites, things go by pretty fast.

A beautiful thing occurred today because of technology. The use of GPS (global positioning system) makes traveling in a foreign country seamless. It takes away the intimidation of driving in an unknown place and lets you drive the Dutch freeways with Los Angeles abandon. I loved the freedom of not having to drive and read a map at the same time.

We set out to a small city 30 minutes west of Amersfoort called Apeldorn. We drove past vast green pastures dotted with black and white spotted cows, the occasional woolly sheep and some small farms. The scenery is lush, but flat with not a hill in sight as Holland is completely beneath the sea level. The cows and their slow and lazy activity add to the tranquil scene.

Nicole and I visited a park called the Apenhuil (Ape Hill). It is a pedestrian park filled with various species of monkeys roaming freely throughout the park to mingle with all the passing tourists. We encountered squirrel monkeys, small cute and hyper yellow monkeys that were jumping, screaming, and scampering all over the place. What was so cool about these little guys were they carried their babies right on their back, but jumped and skied through the trees like circus acrobats. The Macaques were interesting as well. These were medium sized monkeys with a tan and fluffy fur and were located in a Moroccan style setting with bridges and a desert feel to them. These monkeys walked straight up to us, rested at our feet and then began plucking each other like we always see them do on the Discovery channel. Their hands and eyes are so human like that we become fixated on these features. There is something bigger in thought behind those eyes that you don't see in other animals. We saw a few other monkeys in their habitats swinging and jumping and while using their tails like a fifth hand.

The next area were the Great Apes. These guys were a little less active than the monkeys, but a lot more communal. They all sat and rested in the same area whether it was the gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, or orangutans. These are big and strong specimens with facial features and interaction like humans. Once a large crowd surrounded the shy gorillas, they got up and turned their back on the viewers. The orangutans, stereotypically, climbed some ropes and ate bananas, but were the most part as lazy as I felt.

In a stretch for time, we powered through the monkey park without ever experiencing the anticipated monkey robbery. Last time I was there, these black woolly monkeys would walk up to you and brazenly search through your pockets, bags and anything loose until they found something to their liking. Unfortunately, this did not happen as the park decided to cut down on this activity as the monkeys were becoming to aggressive with the tourists. It was a little disappointing that Nicole didn't get to experience this particular highlight of the Apenhuil. We left the park with the most expensive french fries in hand. They were the equivalent of $4.50 for about a small size. Expensive, but we justified the cost as support for the apes.

We then headed to the Openlucht Museum which was located in Arnhem, a medium sized city southwest of Amersfoort. Our guide, the lovely lady we call the navigation system, led us to our destination with ease. This is a huge open air park that focuses on the Holland of old. I guess the best picture I could paint is that of the Amish country that we have seen on television our in movies. There were lots of farm animals, small old world villages, wooden shoes and windmills. The highlight of this visit was of course the Poffertjes. These little pancake-like puffs are what the best dreams are made of. They are small, about the size of a half dollar, tender soft, freshly cooked in front of us, slathered with high fat European butter and then showered with powdered sugar. If there is any treat to travel half the world for, this is the one! I ordered two dozen and Nicole said that would be too much. Ask her 10 minutes later and she would have a different response....these treats were so addicting that we finished a dozen each and even hungered for more, but we had to restrain ourselves.

We headed home and felt pretty accomplished that we were able to visit two museums and get a view of local scenery all in the matter of 6 hours. By the time we arrived, the family was hungry. We piled back into the van and headed to the supermarket. It was my turn to cook at home. The market was impressive. It had all the offerings for the masses, but had artisinal sections within the market of cheeses, meats, fish and breads.

Nicole and I started the cooking in Saskia's well equipped kitchen. Her kitchen is abnormally large for a Dutch kitchen so it made things easy. We started the meal with melba toast and a green olive tapenade. Then I had to introduce my relatives to one of my favorite dishes which was obviously inspired by our next destination. The Parisian Salad, bitter greens tossed with a pungent mustard vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes, crisp and salty cured pork lardons and the star of the group - the soft poached egg. We broke our eggs over the salad and the custardy yolk created the perfect foil for the sharp dressing. This was truly enjoyable.

The main course was a hearty one. We seared some rib eye steaks that were seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg. We served this with a creamy and rich scalloped potatoes that were oven baked with caramelized onions, bacon fat and topped off with gouda style cheese and breadcrumbs. We garnished the plate with tender haricot vert that had been sauteed with garlic and mushrooms. Finally, I made a quick pan sauce with port wine, the beef juices and finished with a small amount of creme fraiche to tone down the assertiveness of the wine and to add a nice sheen to the sauce.

Finally, on center stage was dessert. I chose an all American classic that brings theater to the table. This is a recipe I learned in culinary school, but it is always a fan favorite - Bananas Foster. Caramelized bananas sauteed in rum, brown sugar and butter and then placed over vanilla ice cream. The contrast of hot and cold, the simplicity of vanilla versus the sweetness of the brown sugar and cinnamon always make for a popular finish, plus everyone liked that we turned down the lights as I started the flambe and a wild blue flame shot up to the ceiling in the kitchen!!

We finished the evening with yet another movie and discussion until 3am. How sweet it is.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Sunday in Holland

We stayed up pretty late Saturday night after a movie. I think it is so European to start dinner at 9:30pm, start the movie at 10:30, create our own home intermission in the middle of the movie to grab cookies and sodas and then to finish the movie and stay up another 3 hours just talking about anything and everything. I am not saying our culture versus European culture is better or worse, but it is simply different. I feel I have been more relaxed in the last 3 days than I have been the last 3 years. I think that I have no responsibility is part of it, but also adapting to a lifestyle that focuses on living and doing and learning about each other rather than the embodiment of stress we call our careers. I love the career I have chosen for myself and all that comes with it, but this trip makes me realize that burn out is a real thing. I am not burnt out from cooking, food, or the work, but rather, that daily routine and racing the clock to balance personal fulfillment versus a successful career. My goal is to have both and my motivation rests every night right beside me. Nicole is so loving and supportive of it all and this has been such a great experience to have her with me during this time. I can truly say I am experiencing the best of both worlds right now.

Our dinner was a quick one and a light one. Something neccessary when your day is filled with hordes of relatives trying to stuff you with the entire Dutch cuisine in a matter of days. Saskia, made a beautiful salad of Wild Arugula, Fresh Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Fresh Basil picked straight from the garden and Cashews all drizzled with a fruity Spanish olive oil that comes from just south of Barcelona. This is a basic salad that most of us have had, but the addition of the wild arugula that was so crisp and peppery offset by the olive oil provided a flavorful change to the caprese salad we are so accustomed to. We finished the dinner with some of my Aunt Hedy's homemade pizzas from her bakery that we decided to reheat. Then Wim brought out the prize of a dessert. A very Dutch cookie (I am reluctant to let you know the name via this blog, but rather tell you in is not so P.C.) that would be a favorite amongst most kids, adults and cultures. It looked like a bon bon, but as you bite into it you are greeted with the pillow like texture of marshmallow and a cinnamon spiced cookie crust. This all covered in chocolate and in bite size other words, an accessible S'more.

Sunday was another late start for Nicole and I. We woke up at about noon and had a very light breakfast/lunch. Nicole had a flaky croissant with butter and jam while I enjoyed a Curried Chicken Salad Sandwich on a seeded Kaiser Roll. Both were lighter options than we've had the last few days and completely satisfying. Then, we all piled into the minivan, kids and all, and headed out to Amsterdam to visit the Rijks Museum. What a gorgeous day, the warm sun peeking out behind small white clouds while the spring breeze cools the tears of sweat forming on the top of my lip. We have been blessed with beautiful weather while here that even the locals are forced to comment on. That would all change a little later though.

We entered the museum and are greeted by one of the largest portraits I have ever seen. The painting must have been 30 feet wide by 10 feet high. It always amazes me the size and grandeur of older art and the efforts that must have been taken to achieve such tasks without today's technology. The painting was teaming with 15th century Dutch sailors that were so life like and realistic looking that Nicole and I found ourselves staring and contemplating if images were moving or not. We walked through the dimly lit museum halls and learned a lot about the Imperialistic former Dutch Kingdom. They were sailing to conquer the world and capitalize on all the existing trade. They would attack rival ships to steal their supplies, goods, and trade routes. The former Dutch Republic was cruel. This is the complete opposite of the current culture of The Netherlands. Now you see a calm and friendly public and a liberal government that reaches for things that are good for the people and the country. We finished our tour with Rembrandt's last commissioned painting "Nacht Wacht". This painting showed the realism and detail of life once again and was surrounded by the largest crowd of the day.

We walked through the museum square, an open air area divided by a tiny canal and fountain. The area was littered with various kiosks selling snacks, tables, chairs, and sunbrellas. We bought some belgian style waffles and waffle cones filled with soft serve ice cream. It was a nice treat on a warm day. We basked in the moment letting time pass us by while people watching and enjoying more conversation. Then it came, drop after drop of rain began, so we gathered the kids and scurried to the car to drive back home.

Once home, we relaxed a bit, Nicole did some work on the computer and Saskia and I prepared for our Gourmetten dinner. This is a family tradition in Holland and something we always do when I visit. It is similar to fondue or shabu shabu in theme where all the meats and vegetables are cut small and all the cooking is done at the table. We had chicken breast and flank steak marinated in olive oil, garlic and nutmeg. Mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, and potatoes crammed the table along with a garlic aioli, sambal aioli and fresh baguettes. Again we had the arugula "caprese" as our salad. This style of eating is so enjoyable because of the communal feeling it creates. Everyone at the table shares, cooks for each other in their mini saute pans, and then you add your own personality to your dish by adding herbs and spices like basil or curry powder. Honestly, I didn't think it would be enough, but after I poured all the beef juices left in the little pan onto my baguette true decadence was achieved. The South African Cabernet Sauvignon lit up just the right amount of pleasure centers to make digestion on the couch a mellow one.

It seems like the routine these days in Holland, so we opted for another thriller style movie followed by conversation into the early morning hours. After discussing the controversial documentary "Loose Change", we decided to rest our minds, spirits and stomachs at cousin keeps telling me this is what vacation is all about.....I think I'm learning.....

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Taste of Amersfoort

Another day waking up late....this time at 11:30 and Nicole at noon. Crazy, but I guess that is what happens when you combine jet lag with staying out until 4am.

By the time we woke up, everyone was out doing their thing. Saskia was at work and Wim in the backyard pulling the weeds. Nicole and I enjoyed a cup of coffee and invited the children to help us set the table for breakfast...or lunch I guess. Again we had the various breads, meats, cheeses and chocolate. This time however, my Aunt Hedy paid a visit. She is a fast talker, a quick thinker and a go getter. She is always on the move and hustling around town conducting business. I've never her seen her dressed down either. Always in line with the latest fashion with elegant accessories and of course high heels. She was working a delivery for her and her husband's business - Patisserie Van Gent. She was actually delivering a wedding cake. She asked if I wanted to ride with her, but I eyes were just beginning to peel open. After our lunch she returned and did she return after a visit to the bakery. She came back with enough bread for 2 weeks, and many artisan pastries and pizza from the bakery. My favorite pastry was a crisp and flaky pastry dough that was filled with a spicy sausage. Nicole enjoyed the same flaky pastry dough, but hers was dumped with powder sugar and a few caramelized pecans. Aunty Hedy also brought some her cold salad specials like salmon spread, celery root salad which was surprisingly delicious with subtle hints of sourness as well sweetness, and a mild curried chicken salad that was to my liking.

What was supposed to be a light breakfast turned into a huge lunch. We rested from that for a little while and then headed to the "Taste of Amersfoort". This a community event where all the local restaurants close shop and open up small booths where they are able to serve their food and drink the patrons paying with keitjes or "rocks". This celebrates an old folk story of different rocks that were brought to Amersfoort to help build the city. It actually serves as a fun event for the locals and a promotional event for the businesses. We had many tastes likes Zeeauss Oysters with lemon and black pepper, beef tenderloin with white asparagus mousse and hollandaise, crayfish pancakes with sea beans and lobster espuma, swordfish brochettes with mango chutney, warm goat cheese on nut bread with caramelized honey, proscuitto wrapped foie gras torchon with truffle cream and figs, and also, herbed cream cheese wrapped in proscuitto which happened to be one of the favorites. We washed it all down with Grolsch beer and topped it off with a rich vanilla ice cream.

Tonight is going to be a slow night. The kids are a little rowdy today getting in lots of fights with each other so we are all going to kick back and watch a movie. Plus, it will be great for Nicole and I to slow it down for a night while we get our sleeping patterns in order and come to terms with how to fix her computer.

American Football??

So the day started late for us. I can't remember the last time I woke up at 10:30am, but I'll tell you what it felt good. Nicole and I awoke to a full and bustling house. Willamijn and Carlijn were jumping around and pretending they were starring in a music video while Jasper intently focused on his computer game as he conquered level after level....he is a 10 year old gaming genius in the making!

The Dutch breakfast starts always with Douwe Egberts coffee. It is rich tasting and fragrant with a nice body to it. I am not the biggest coffee drinker, but when in Holland, it is a little irressitable.

We set the table and then are barraged with various types of bread like croissants, wheat bread, white bread, and baguettes. Then we have nutella, the famous chocolate and hazelnut spread, peanut butter (which Nicole and I imported from the U.S.), butter, Dutch cheese, Meijes (chocolate sprinkles), and various meats like turkey breast, chorizo, and a red wine salami. All of it was so delicious and also so different from the usual bowl of cereal or eggs and bacon that we have become so accustomed to in the U.S. We had another great meal sharing great conversation about the family and then a quick laugh when 5 year old Carlijn enjoy her bread with Sambaal Badjak which is an extremely spicy Indonesian chili garlic sauce! One thing to note is that the cheeses are not categorized so much by type, but more by age. Obviously, the younger the cheese the softer and milder and the older the cheese the more dry and sharp the cheese becomes.

Next we did a little shopping at the Langestraat and visited many of the stores located on this cobbled brick road. The streets were packed with the local Amersfoort community, tall and thin men, young teenagers eating snoopje (candy) and hordes of families eating soft serve ice cream and french fries with mayonnaise. We stopped at Dilla and Kamilla which is where Saskia once worked and is basically a playground for chefs. We found cooking tools and dishes galore, but we ended up purchasing only a nutmeg grater. We left there with some good ideas though.

Later in the evening we left for Amsterdam to go watch NFL Europe. We met up with a group of 12 (Nicole, Anthony, Saskia, Wim, Jan Willem, Betty, Ryan, Debbie, Michael, Eva, and two more friends) and watched the Amsterdam Admirals dominate the Hamburg Sea Devils with a score of 41-24. It was fun and definitely different. Nicole and I spent the better part of the game explaining the rules to all the relatives. The NFL is not that big here, but it is a fun event for everyone to do on a Friday night. What was amazing is that the Arena threw an after party for all the fans. It was pretty lame, but it was fun to see the Dutch culture enjoying a free night of drinking and giveaways. In fact, we got to see the new dance called the "Jump Style". Apparently it is spreading worldwide.

We then caravaned into Amsterdam to the Leidseplein Square where all the bars and clubs are located. The first area we went was a little seedy. We saw old punk rockers with double mohawks, ripped jeans, leather jackets and lots of many chains it would humble Mr. T. In fact, their was a mobile jail located right in the middle of the square as police practically waited for a fight to break out. We decided to make an about face and visit a more trendier club/bar called the Palladium. It seemed like a trendy spot in Hollywood with warm woods, a huge mirror behind the bar and attractive women as well as men. There we enjoyed plenty of beers, some fun photos and plenty of dancing.

We piled into the van and started our 45 minute drive back to Amersfoort. We finally reached the house and began our slumber at 4am. One sad positive discovery on fixing Nicole's computer problem. That has both of us a little bothered right now, so if anyone knows how to regain her work domain, please help!!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tough Day (cont.)

It was getting late last night so I had to cut off.

So after munching on some Edam cheese, a semi-soft and mild Dutch cheese, we began work on the cousin Wim is a computer tech so at one time we had 5 computers going all at the same time trying to connect to his network. In the wake of our attempt we sucked down a tasty beverage called Rosen Stroop. It is actually made of Rose Syrup with an inviting sweetness backgrounded with a huge floral scent of actual roses. Mix that with water over ice and we had a refreshing drink to watch the sunset at 10:30pm....that's right, 10:30 at night!!

Anyhow, as Wim was working on the computers we ran into a problem with Nicole's work computer. As one thing led to another and one attempt to fix the problem happened we ended up getting locked out entirely of the computer. That all being said, Nicole handled it well, but it has us both a little stressed as we attempt to fix it. I know it will get fixed, but we will be in touch with the Nestle IT team.

Today we have no plans, but to go to the is the main city area in Amersfoort. It is actually a fort surrounded by a moat or canal, whatever you want to call it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tough Day

We made it...the flight wasn't as rough as we thought, but I wasn't able to catch any shut eye. Seating was tight and to make matters worse we had three beligerent travelers sitting behind us that didn't help with the long travel time. Nicole and I trooped it out only to be met with a ridiculous long line for security while trying to make our connecting flight in London. However, Nicole stepped it up and got us in the preferred traveller line so we just made our connector to Amsterdam.

Our arrival in Amsterdam was seamless. We were joyfully met by my cousins Saskia, Jan Willem and my second cousin Carline. A lot of great conversation, jokes and memories as we shared a train ride into Amersfoort. Upon reaching our home for the next seven days, courtesy of Sas and Wim, we were greeted by the rest of the family - my aunts Vonnie, Tjilly, and Hedy; my cousin Ryan; some spouses Betty and Hans; and of course, one more second cousin Jasper. Again we spent a great time catching up on the past and sharing in some of our favorite snacks.

Aunt Vonnie made a run to the snack shop and picked up Kaas Souffle, Bitter Ballen, Croquetten, and Pataat met Mayonaisse. The kaas souffle was a lucious treat of dripping Dutch Gouda cheese encased in a crispy breadcrumb mixture. The first bite is a durable crunch followed by a sharp, oozing warm cheese. What a treat! The bitter ballen and croquettes are very similar. They are a well seasoned beef and parsley mixture that is cooked down to a meltingly soft consistency in a beef veloute sauce. It is then breaded and fried. The meat mixture is so rich and flavorful that we ate it with the perfect foil - a spicy mustard sauce. Finally, we topped it all off with french fries dipped in doesn't get much more Dutch than that.

We continued into the night, still without having slept for a night, but we were running on fun and laughter. We ran into a little speed bump later in the evening that I will share at a later time.