Friday, May 6, 2016

Le Food Trip's "Tasting Passport" is a uniquely delicious way to explore Paris!

Isabelle at Les Petites Domaines is both charming and very knowledgable about French wine.

Two of my favorite topics are food and travel, so it didn't take me long to answer an enthusiastic "yes" when the CzechTourism agency asked if I would be interested in co-hosting a 45 minute Twitter chat about Culinary Travel while I was in Paris. The questions posed by the tourism agency, particularly the one about my favorite kind of culinary experience (food tour, wine tour or snacking?) while abroad, caused me to reflect on the various food and wine tours I've taken over the years.

My mind was still firmly focused on the joys of food when I received a text message from Elodie, my friend at the Paris Tourist Office, suggesting that I meet with Martin Herbelin, one of the three co-founders of Le Food Trip, to hear about their newly launched "Tasting Passport". Talk about serendipity!

The concept is simple. After purchasing a Tasting Passport online, visitors use easy-to-read maps to conduct self-guided tasting tours of three different regions of Paris. In keeping with their goal to make the city's best food and drinks easily accessible, the Tasting Passport includes coupons for 12 tempting products. Unlike traditional food tours led by a guide, passport holders have the flexibility to decide when and where they would like to begin their culinary adventure.

My journey got off to a wonderful start with a warm welcome from Isabelle, the owner of Les Petits Domaines in the 7th arrondissement. Passionate about small wineries, Isabelle used a map to show me the main wine growing regions of France before offering me a glass of Le Clandestin Sauvignon from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. As I sipped my white wine, Isabelle offered some advice for selecting a good bottle of French wine and told me about her visits to the Champagne region. The convivial experience reminded me of how much I always enjoyed talking with local shopkeepers when I lived in Paris. Unfortunately, many tourists never have the opportunity to interact with French people because they're too intimidated to enter a small store in a foreign city. The Tasting Passport effectively breaks down those boundaries.

"Magnifique" Merveilleux are little bites of happiness!

This would be a good time to confess that I almost skipped two of the four tastings in the 7th arrondissement because Calissons and Merveilleux have never ranked high on my list of must-eat foods in France. That would have been a big mistake because the French founders of the Tasting Passport have done an excellent job selecting the best spots to sample the city's culinary treats. I liked the Le Petit Duc's Calissons so much that I bought several packs to take as presents when I go to the USA next week. A big box of Merveilleux would have also ended up in my suitcase but I didn't think that the delicate meringues would travel well ... and there's a good chance that they would have proven too hard for me to resist!

Given the miserable weather while I was in Paris, I'm thankful that the Tasting Passport gave me the flexibility to plan my outings so that I wasn't trudging around the city in the rain. Even though the sky was still overcast when I pushed open the door of Première Pression Provence, the atmosphere inside the store was as sunny as the region for which the store is named. After learning about the three different types of olive oil,  I was invited to sample a flavorful one perfect for drizzling on carpaccio and a more mild one that pairs perfectly with roasted vegetables and meat. Best of all was the entertaining exchange I had with the shopkeeper who generously shared several French cooking tips and helped me select some lightweight items (Herbes de Provence and Tomates en Poudre Fin) to take back to Prague.

The Tasting Passport, which is valid for three months, includes a glass of French wine, foie gras from Aquitaine, crispy cookies from Aquitaine, a cup of coffee at one of the trendiest spots in Paris, charcuterie from Aveyron, Calissons from Provence, a pot of jam, one of the best croissants in the city, a tasty Financier, Comté cheese, a sampling of olive oils from Provence and a Merveilleux.

Insider's tips: try to time your visits during off-peak hours so that the artisans have more time to tell you about their products. If you've ever had a question about French wine, cheese or charcuterie, the Tasting Passport gives you access to experts who can answer it. Don't be shy!

Get Tasting Passports for the entire family and let your children plot out your itinerary on the map. Delicious culinary treats will be their reward for leading you to the right destination.

I spent a delightful 30 minutes learning about olive oil and other regional products at Première Pression Provence!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Barbie does Paris with an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Barbie does Paris in a big way with her own exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Photo: Musée des Arts Décoratifs

It's 8:46 am in Paris and I'm still in my pajamas. Donna's cat Penelope is purring contentedly while I scratch her belly, but I'm feeling slightly deflated. Here I am, cat-sitting while Best Friend in Paris takes a group to the Loire Valley and Barbie ... well, you probably already know Barbie. My famous childhood friend is currently being featured in an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Barbie's dressed for success at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

Barbie, who was created a mere four years before I was born, has had more careers than any woman I know. The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl from Malibu has been a paleontologist, computer scientist, schoolteacher, doctor, ballerina, policewoman, and even a presidential candidate. If a little girl can dream it, Barbie can achieve it. Not only has Barbie practiced more than 150 professions, from the most traditional to the most avant-garde, she even managed to qualify as an astronaut before Neil Armstrong.

I was first introduced to Barbie when I was about six years old. When Barbie confidently shook her perfectly coiffed hair from side to side as she stepped out of her pink cardboard box, it seemed that I was meeting someone who could accomplish anything while teetering around my bedroom in her plastic high heels.

Even though my childish infatuation was short-lived, probably in large part because my older brother always coerced me to play his self-designed "world domination game" rather than Barbie, I kept tabs on the iconic American doll. I followed with interest the debates caused by her elongated feminine figure. Should she be loathed for embodying an idealized woman or praised for her autonomous and independent lifestyle? And why did she return to Ken after her fling with Blaine, an Australian surfer?

More than 7,000 miniature garments and accessories taken from Barbie's wardrobe
 form a colorful collage in the last room of the Barbie exhibition.

The years passed and I was suddenly a mother confronted by the question -- Should I introduce my young daughter to Barbie? While my old friend from the 60s had a remarkable ability to adapt to change, she was also a self-proclaimed fashionista dressing in clothes designed especially for her by Thierry Mugler, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Louboutin. I didn't want to send the wrong message to Sara.

In the end, I decided to focus on Barbie's attributes rather than her flaws. She has a unique way of sparking the imagination of young girls by allowing them to pretend that they're someone else. Her incarnations include, Barbie Marie Antoinette, Barbie Queen Elizabeth I, Barbie Joan of Arc and, rather bizarrely, The Birds Barbie that comes complete with fake birds.

The smile on Sara's face when I presented her with a Butterfly Barbie dressed in a princess gown covered with shimmering butterflies was all that I needed to convince me that I had made the right decision.

More than any other toy, Barbie began as an embodiment of the American way of life. By following in her footsteps, visitors to the exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs will be able to trace the historical and sociological changes of the United States from the 1960s to the current day.

Insider's tip: Combine the Barbie exhibition with Fashion Forward, 3 Centuries of Fashion (1715-2016). This gorgeous exhibit is at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs through August 14, 2016.

Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 107 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris
April 7 - September 18, 2016

Barbie Marie-Antoinette at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Barbie fashion show at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Barbie Queen Elizabeth I at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Barbie Joan of Arc at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kaiserschmarrn ("Emperor's Mess") and memories

Kaiserschmarrn ("Emperor's Mess")

"I can't wait until we get to Austria!" I confessed to Stéphane while navigating the car around another sharp curve in the road from Český Krumlov to Linz. "I'll be able to talk with people ... Ein Bier, bitte", I enthusiastically demonstrated for emphasis. "I'll even be able to order more than one beer. I can order hundreds, or even thousands, of beers in German!"

Stéphane, who had never before seen me so enthusiastic about the German language, expressed similar sentiments. Learning Czech is going much slower than either of us anticipated. Part of the problem is that we live in the touristic center of Prague, where it's really easy to get by with only English. It's a completely different story, however, when we leave the city. During a recent lunch at a small restaurant in the countryside, I'm embarrassed to admit that Stéphane and I ordered exactly the same lunch -- pivo (beer) and goulash -- because those were the only words on the menu that we understood. 

How's your Czech?

As we crossed the border into Austria, Stéphane and I reminisced about our first expat posting in Mühldorf am Inn. Long layered over by experiences in other countries, memories of our lives in Germany suddenly pushed their way to the forefront of our brains. We talked about former friends, favorite foods and the surprising fact that we used to live only two and a half hours from the Czech border, a country that was then known as Czechoslovakia and off limits to us because it was still behind the Iron Curtain when we lived in Germany in 1988.

Of all the Austro-Bavarian specialities, the one that I was happiest to see on the menu in Vienna was Kaiserschmarrn. The first taste of the fluffy dessert, which is also eaten as a sweet main course, reminded me of our neighbor Sonia. She had kindly taken me, the lone American woman in the small town of Mühldorf, under her wing and shown me how to make "Emperor's Mess", Emperor Franz Joseph's favorite dish.

The next time I'm in the USA, I'm going to have to see if I can find Sonia's handwritten recipe for Kaiserschmarrn because I'm almost positive that I still have it. In the meantime, here's a recipe that I found on the Austrian tourism website. It's what Stéphane and I are having for dinner this evening. Guten Appetit!


6 eggs
350–400 ml milk
180–200 g finely ground flour
3 tbsp crystal sugar, for the topping
2 tbsp raisins
1 packet (8g) vanilla sugar
A dash of rum
Some grated lemon rind
A pinch of salt
Approx. 50 g butter for frying
1 tablespoon of butter shavings and crystal sugar, for caramelizing
Icing sugar and cinnamon for dusting

How to prepare it:

Place the raisins in a bowl, mix with the rum and leave to stand for approximately 15 minutes. Separate the eggs and place the yolks in a mixing bowl. Pour in the milk, flavor with some grated lemon rind and vanilla sugar, and add the flour. Mix to form a smooth dough.
Beat the egg whites together with the sugar and a small pinch of salt until it forms a stiff peak, and fold into the dough mix. Pre-heat the oven to 180 °C.
Melt the butter in a ovenproof (coated) dish. Pour in the mixture and after 1–2 minutes sprinkle the soaked raisins over the top. Cook the underside until light brown, turn over using a spatula and bake for 6–8 minutes in the pre-heated oven until golden brown.
Tear the ‘Schmarren’ into small pieces, using two forks. Sprinkle the butter shavings over the top, add some crystal sugar, and caramelize in the broiler under high top heat.
Remove from the oven and arrange on pre-heated plates. Dust with confectioners sugar and cinnamon.

Serve with baked plums, a berry or fruit compote.
The Emperor’s ‘Trifle’ can also be made on the stove top and caramelized at the end covered with a lid.

Kaiserschmarrn ("Emperor's Mess"), Emperor Franz Joseph's favorite dish!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Two unique places to stay in Austria: Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace and Linz's Mariandom Tower Hermitage

Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is now accepting overnight guests! Photo: Mercury Press & Media Ltd.

Whether you're a wannabe hermit or a hopeful princess, Austria has a unique accommodation especially for you!

I stumbled across the "Staying at the palace" option while perusing Schönbrunn's website. Thinking it was probably a clever advertisement for a hotel on the grounds of the palace, I was surprised to see that the Grand Suite is actually located in the East Wing of the former imperial residence itself. The 167 square meter (1,798 square feet) suite boasts a salon, two bedrooms, a kitchenette, a living room and two bathrooms.

One of the bedrooms in the Schloß Schönbrunn Grand Suite.
Photo: Mercury Press & Media Ltd. 

The unique opportunity to spend the night in one of Europe's most impressive Baroque palaces comes complete with a stunning view of the sprawling palace park, the magnificent Neptune Fountain, the colonnaded Gloriette and the Kronprinzengarten.

If you would like to add a horse-drawn carriage ride through the imperial park or exclusive butler service to your royal vacation, Schönbrunn Palace in partnership with Austria Trend Hotels is ready to meet your every need. A one night stay starts at €699, while the honeymoon package is €2,700. Click here for more information.  

The view from the the Schloß Schönbrunn Grand Suite.
Photo: Mercury Press & Media Ltd.

If the thought of hordes of tourists outside your window is too much to bear, Linz's Mariendom (New Cathedral) offers serenity for the soul in a hermit's room 359 steps above the city. Hermit guests are encouraged to focus on essential, mystical questions: What exists when nothing exists anymore? What do you perceive once you have taken leave of familiar routines, when you’ve achieved serenity and disengaged from matters of lesser importance? What are you deep inside?

The hermit's room in the tower at Linz's Mariendom (New Cathedral)
Photo: Linz Diocese 

In addition to the Bible, Koran and Talmud, the hermitage library has a selection of books including The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm,  Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything by Viktor Frankl and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

During their week in the tower room, hermits are asked to write their daily reflections in a diary that is passed on to subsequent hermits and to spend 20 minutes a day in silent communion with visitors to the cathedral. The simple prayer service is an opportunity for people to experience a brief period of silence and to immerse themselves in tranquility.

The Tower Hermit Program, which was originally a project of Linz 2009 European Capital of Culture in cooperation with the Diocese of Linz, has been such an overwhelming success that it has been extended through 2016. Click here to learn more about the Tower Hermit Program.

Good night from my very normal hotel room in Vienna! After a busy day exploring Linz, it's time to get some sleep. Schönbrunn Palace is on the schedule for tomorrow.

The Hermitage is located in the tower of the Mariendom (New Cathedral) in Linz.
It's Austria's biggest church with seating for 20,000 people.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Visiting the UNESCO listed Cathedral of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora

The Cathedral of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora is best viewed after the crowds have departed in the late afternoon.

Imagine a construction project lasting for more than 500 years! Thanks to the fluctuating prosperity of the local silver mines in Kutná Hora and the Hussite wars, work on the Cathedral of St. Barbara was an on-again, off-again proposition.

The structure was started in 1388 after the owners of the Kutná Hora silver mine won a centuries' long battle to establish a cathedral outside the authority of the nearby Sedlec monastery. Intended to rival the Prague Cathedral of St. Vitus in its magnificence, construction of the cathedral was contingent upon the success of the silver mines. As Jan Parler, the cathedral's first architectural contractor, was the son of the master-builder of Prague's St. Vitus, the similarities between the two cathedrals is certainly not accidental. In fact, Jan must have wanted to better his father's creation because St. Barbara was originally planned to be twice the present length.

While its flying buttresses create an exquisite architectural profile, what impressed me most about the cathedral is that it paid tribute to the city's silver industry and to the miners who toiled underground for 10-14 hours a day. Not only is the namesake of the cathedral the patron saint of miners, but some of the 15th century frescoes feature minters hard at work minting Prague groschens. The 17th century statue of a miner reveals the accoutrements of the trade: an oil lamp to dispel the dark and a leather apron used to slide down to the mines. Located 500 meters (1,640 feet) underground, the Kutná Hora mines were the deepest in the world at the time. The statue provoked a lingering question. Why did the miners wear white? I hope that I'll learn the answer when I go to the Czech Museum of Silver during my next visit to Kutná Hora. The museum was, unfortunately, still closed for the winter when Stéphane and I were there at the end of March.

A statue of a silver miner (left) and a fresco of a silver minter (right) in the Cathedral of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora. 

Insider's tips: As with the Sedlec Ossuary (The Bone Church), it's best to visit the Cathedral of St. Barbara after the buses filled with tourists from Prague have left for the afternoon. To fully appreciate the grandeur of the cathedral, be sure to walk all the way around it. The terrace on the east side of the cathedral offers a beautiful view of Kutná Hora.

Even though St. Barbara was built in the style of a cathedral, it's actually a church. Because it's most commonly referred to as the Cathedral of St. Barbara (Katedrál sv. panny Barbory), that's the designation I used in this post.

Cathedral of St. Barbara
284 01 Kutná Hora

Santa Barbara's Baroque alters dating from 1680 to 1710.
The wooden statue of "Our Lady Enthroned" on the first alter dates back to 1380!  
The view of the Cathedral of St. Barbara from the Italian Court