Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday's video: The Seafood Market in Trouville, Normandy

During the reign of Napoleon III, it was said that boulevardiers (men about town) housed their wives in Deauville and stashed their mistresses across the river in Trouville-sur-Mer. I must be a mistress at heart because I prefer the narrow streets and working class charm of Trouville to the upscale stores and glamour of Deauville. One of my favorite places is the vibrant seafood market, where Parisians in town for the weekend engage in friendly chatter with locals while slurping oysters and sipping champagne for breakfast.

Feeling rather tired after the excitement of riding in the 47th annual Paris-Deauville Rally on Friday, I missed breakfast on Saturday morning but arrived in time for a lunch of paella piled high with seafood and some of the freshest shrimp I've ever tasted.

Here's a short video of the market:

Lots has happened since I left Boston on Tuesday evening. Here are the links for some photo albums posted on Facebook. Please note that it's not necessary to have a Facebook account to view the pictures:

Fashionistas leaving the Nina Ricci show on Thursday afternoon
French Republican Horse Guards at Place Vendôme
Elie Saab exhibition at the George V
Paris-Deauville Rally 2013 at Place Vendôme

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Talking with L'Espalier's Louis Risoli, one of the first cheese experts in the USA (Part 1)

Louis Risoli at L'Espalier

Ever since Penny of BostonZest first showed me the impressive cheese cart at L'Espalier, I've been hoping to have the opportunity to talk with maître d' and fromager Louis Risoli about his recent qualification as one of the first cheese experts in the United States. I was elated when he agreed to take a break from overseeing one of Boston's best fine dining establishments to chat with me about cheese.

I'm curious about the "Certified Cheese Professional" qualification. Is it comparable with the designation "Meilleurs Ouvriers de France" (Best Craftsmen in France)?
I guess it is to a degree. The American Cheese Society (ACS) came up with the Certified Cheese Professional Exam (CCPE) to encourage improved standards of comprehensive cheese knowledge and service in the cheese industry. The ACS gave the first exam in August last year and another exam this year. Eventually, they hope to give it twice a year.

How many "Certified Cheese Professionals" are there in the United States?
I think about 130 were certified last year and there were at least a 100 certified this year. So, that means there must be about 230 Certified Cheese Professionals.

If someone is interested in taking the exam, what are the necessary qualifications?
They have to have about 4,000 hours of documentable work experience, paid or unpaid, in the cheese profession during the last six years.

How did you get your experience? 
I got it all by working at L'Espalier. When I first came here 31 years ago, there was a small cheese program in place. It was all European cheese. There wasn't really much in the way of American cheese then. We offered about 10 different cheeses on any given night. After working here for about five years, I took over the program almost by happenstance. I found that I had a head for cheese, or perhaps I should say a nose for cheese. But most importantly, I was interested in cheese.

With regards to cheese, what changes have you noticed during the last 30 years?
Tastes have changed dramatically. Americans are a lot more open to new ideas and tastes. There has been a cheese revolution in this country. We're very fortunate here in New England to be living in one of the hubs of cheese making.

Does cheese that's imported from France have to be pasteurized?
No, it does not. The rule is that raw milk cheeses have to be aged for more than 60 days to be legally sold in the USA. That applies to cheeses that are both made in this country and that are imported. Therefore, it has become much easier for European cheese makers to pasteurize the cheese if they're sending it to this country. For soft cheeses they don't have any other option because your average small cheese isn't going to make it to 60 days. Camemberts and Bries will almost always be made from pasteurized milk if they're imported.

Is there a cheese that you would like to bring to the USA but that you think wouldn't be appreciated by your customers? Maybe Mimolette?
I don't usually have Mimolette at the restaurant. There was some sort of a health scare about it in Boston recently. It would probably be something as basic as an unpasteurized Brie or Camembert. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could bring a real raw milk version to this country?

How much of your time do you spend visiting cheese makers in Europe and the United States? 
Not nearly enough. I probably get to Vermont more often than anyplace else. I like to visit farms in New England so I do that with some frequency. I haven't been to Europe in about two years. I've probably traveled in Italy more than I have in other countries in Europe.

What is your dream cheese destination in Europe?
You know where I wish I was right now? At the huge Cheese Festival in Bra, Italy. It's a small town in the Piemonte region where to my understanding about 100,000 people are gathering this week to taste cheese from all around the world. There are definitely more Italian cheeses than anything else at the festival but there will also be American cheese makers showing their cheeses.

I haven't noticed American cheese at the markets in Paris. Do many American cheese makers export their cheese to Europe?
Rogue River and Jasper Hill Farm sell their cheese in Europe.

Is there a book that you recommend to people who want to learn more about cheese?
Yes, I like Max McCalman's books a great deal. The newest one is called "Mastering Cheese". It's the most in-depth book but it's not so in-depth that an amateur couldn't pick it up and be fascinated and learn an awful lot.

And now for a question about etiquette. In a restaurant, what's the socially acceptable number of cheese selections to take from a cheese cart. In Paris, I usually ask for three to four different kinds of cheese.
Oh, I guess that varies. If I'm putting together a plate as part of our tasting menu, I usually include six to eight different kinds of cheese. I like to include all three milks - cow, sheep and goat - and different styles. My one piece of advice to people selecting their own cheese is to sample a variety. If a guest's selections are identical, I'm almost always going to give them a bonus cheese, something that I think they should try.

L'Espalier's cheese cart features about 30 different kinds of cheese. Which countries do they come from?
Most of them come from the United States. Probably two-thirds to three-quarters are New England cheese and the rest are from other parts of the country. I love Italian cheese so I always have a few Italian cheeses, sometimes more than a few. And it's always rounded out with something French, Swiss and often Spanish.

As a Swiss-by-marriage, I have to ask which is your favorite Swiss cheese?
That varies but lately I've been loving Chällerhocker from the canton of St. Gallen. It's made by Walter Ross. The name means "sitting in a cellar" because it's aged for ten months.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?
It has been fairly exciting to grow with the cheese revolution in New England, to be able to support so many wonderful local cheese makers and to watch as they improve their craft. American cheese has really caught up with European cheese, not in every instance but they've learned really, really quickly. Five years ago, almost no one was making washed rind cheese in this country and now there are unbelievably fabulous washed rind cheeses, incredible Alpine style cheese. It's different than what you find in Switzerland but really, really good. One of my favorites is Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Creamery in Wisconsin. Here in New England, there's Tarentaise from both Spring Brook Farm and Thistle Hill Farm.

In addition to being a Certified Cheese Professional, you're also an artist.
Yes, I'm a painter. Some of my work is at Gallery Naga on Newbury Street. I had a one person show there last January.

Talking with L'Espalier's Louis Risoli, one of the first certified cheese experts in the USA (Part 2)

Talking with L'Espalier's Louis Risoli, one of the first certified cheese experts in the USA (Part 2)

L'Espalier's cheese expert Louis Risoli cutting a piece of cheese for me to taste.

Thanks to Joseph Goins, Ann Marie Fretts, Bridget Wall and Karen Chin for posting their questions for Louis Risoli of L'Espalier on my Facebook page. Here are the cheese expert's responses:

Joseph: Is it true that cheese cannot host any pathogenic molds, those that make humans sick?
No, I wouldn't think so. It all depends on the cheese. Mold is a component of cheese but not all molds belong on cheese. In general, if cheese is getting a little bit of blueing on it, just cut that part off.

What is your favorite cheese with champagne as an aperitif? 
I would probably go with one of those really lush French triple-crèmes like Brillat-Savarin, Pierre Robert or Explorateur.

I don't like rind. Does that make me look like a neophyte? 
No. The rind is a personal preference. As a general rule, the rind on soft cheese is usually going to be edible. Give it a try and see if it enhances your experience. If it does, go with it. If not, don't. On hard cheeses, I know some people who eat the rind on every cheese. Personally, I don't eat the rind on hard cheeses because I don't think it enhances anything. My rule of thumb is that if it looks like tree bark, I don't eat it.

Ann Marie: Mr. Risoli's monthly Cheese Tuesdays are a must for all cheese lovers! Having attended two, I'm looking forward to do one more before Christmas. Please ask if he would consider hosting them more frequently heading into the Winter Holiday Season!
I would love to but the restaurant is so busy during the holiday season that we just don't have time for more Cheese Tuesdays.

Mary Kay: For those unfortunate people, like me, who haven't been to one of your Cheese Tuesdays, what is the format? 
We serve a three-course savory dinner and cheese usually comes into play in the preparation of most of those courses. We have a glass of paired wine to match with each course. Our beverage director Lauren Collins co-hosts Cheese Tuesdays with me. She takes care of the wine part. And then everyone is served their own plate of cheese. There's a different theme every month so the cheese selection reflects the theme of the month. In October, we'll feature cheeses that won the competition at the American Cheese Society Conference in August. After that, I talk about the cheese, we eat it and then we sing a song about cheese.
You sing a song about cheese?
We do. We sing a different song every month.
Are there that many songs about cheese? I'm trying to think of one.
Well, I write them. I find popular songs and change the words so that they're about cheese.
Your cheese evenings sound like a lot of fun.
They are.

Bridget:  I love L'Espalier and their professional staff... the cheese experts, the wine and tea sommeliers. Does Mr. Risoli have suggestions for a set of three cheese and wine pairings that someone with a graduate student's budget could serve at a cocktail party?
Let me think about this for a second because she would probably want three different styles. Often European cheeses are less expensive than American artisanal cheese, so she may want to go with all European cheese. For goat milk cheese, I would pick something like Bûcheron, which is both easy to serve and relatively inexpensive. That would pair beautifully with a Loire Valley wine like a Sancerre. Let's also do an Italian Taleggio, which is going to be soft and creamy with a little bit of earthiness and a nice depth of flavor. And again, it's easy to serve and isn't over the top expensive. Let's stick with regions, more or less, so maybe something with Sangiovese grapes like a Chianti. And then a blue cheese. Did you say that Bridget lives in Massachusetts? Then let's go local with Great Hill Blue, which is from Marion. It has really bright lively notes, a bit like a French Roquefort. Almost a lemony flavor. And that would match up really nicely with something a little bit on the sweet side. Hmm, but not overly expensive. Let's get back to that later. Great Hill Blue is probably available at Whole Foods or Central Bottle in Cambridge.

Karen: Please ask Mr Risoli what his favorite cheeses are in Boston.
Do you mean local cheese made near Boston? Well, that would be Great Hill Blue otherwise there isn't a lot of cheese made in this area. If we expand the geographical region to include all of New England, I would say anything from Jasper Hill Farm. You can find it easily. I won't name really obscure cheeses that you won't be able to get. Woodcock Farms is another one of my real favorites. It's also in Vermont. They have a variety of styles so you can find a lot of different cheeses from those two farms alone.

Talking with L'Espalier's Louis Risoli, one of the first cheese experts in the USA (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A man or a woman? Who should be the next person admitted to the Panthéon in Paris?

AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE ("For great men the grateful Nation")

If you think that the admissions officers of elite universities have a tough job deciding which applicants to admit to their institutions, imagine what it must be like to select which "great men" of France should take their places next to the likes of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis Braille, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola in the crypt of the Panthéon. To aid in the decision making process, Philippe Belaval, the president of the Centre for National Monuments has launched an online survey asking French citizens and foreigners to submit names for consideration. 

In a dramatic change from the last two centuries when only two women, Marie Curie* and Sophie Berthelot were admitted to the Panthéon, there has been a growing consensus in France that the next person should be a female. In response to a speech made on International Women's Day by President Hollande in which he hinted that it's time to redress the gender imbalance in the Pantheon, the group Osez Le Feminisme (Dare to be Feminist) has started putting pressure on the government to name a woman to the  Panthéon as soon as possible. Their candidates? Revolutionary proto-feminist Olympe de Gouges, anti-slavery campaigner Solitude, heroine of the 1871 Paris Commune Louise Michel, wartime resistance fighter Germaine Tillion, and feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. Other contenders include the writers Georges Sand, Germaine de Stael and Marguerite Duras, as well as resistance leader Lucie Aubrac.

Who do you think should join the 72 people who have already been honored at the Panthéon? Philippe Bélaval, the president of the Centre for National Monuments invites you to voice your opinion by completing an online survey prior to Sepember 22, 2013. The criteria for women is exactly the same as for men. Their lives must have reflected the values of the French Republic. Among the key attributes of the next honoree, the choices included in the questionnaire are political action, commitment to peace, athletic feat, protection of the environment, commitment to freedom (la liberté), scientific discoveries, commitment to equality (l'égalité), artistry and commitment to brotherhood (la fraternité). 

Click here to give your opinion! You may submit two names.

*Marie Curie, the French physicist and chemist, is the second woman to be buried in the Panthéon, but the first to be honored for her own achievements. Sophie Berthelot is buried next to her husband, mathematician Marcelin Berthelot, according to his last wish.

The crypt of Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and Emile Zola (1840-1902) in the Panthéon.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"La Parisienne" in Crete

Just in case you're thinking that I've started referring to myself as "La Parisienne", I haven't. But living in Paris has equipped me with a certain aggressiveness that came in handy while visiting Knossos Palace, the most visited monument in Crete.

Up early to watch the sun cast its first rays on the largest Greek island, Stéphane, Sara and I sprinted down the gangway as soon as the Noordam docked in Iraklion, Crete. Like determined Parisians with a metro to catch, we maneuvered past the taxi drivers at the port who were charging 50 euros to transport passengers to and from the archaeological site of Knossos and hurried to the bus station where we found a driver willing to take us for 10 euros. As the taxi veered around a steep curve in the road, I glanced out the back window to check if the tour buses full of passengers from the cruise ships were gaining on us. By my calculation, we still had about an hour before the hordes arrived.

The line in front of the entrance to the Mineon palace had just started to form when we leapt out of the taxi. Stéphane's job was to buy tickets while my more herculean task was to strike a deal with a local tour guide. Resolute in their knowledge that swarms of tourists would soon appear on the horizon, the Greek guides refused to accept anything less than 30 euros per person for a group of 10 people. Wondering how quickly I could round up seven other Anglophones, my head swiveled around when I heard a group of French people behind me finalizing a deal. Without stopping to think, I boldly, and somewhat rudely, asked if we could join their group of ten.

As soon as we finished saying "bonjour", our guide directed us to a shady spot under a large pine tree near the "Royal Road". It was barely past 9:00 am and already the stone ruins of the  palace commissioned by King Minos were emanating enough heat to bake a baguette.

According to ancient Greek mythology, Knossos Palace was deliberately designed with such complexity that no one would ever be able to find its exit. Upon its completion, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus, the architect to ensure that he wouldn't reveal the design of the palace to anyone. Daedalus, who was also an inventor, built two sets of wings to fly out of the palace with Icarus, his young and impulsive son. When Icarus ignored his father's advice not to fly too close to the sun, the boy fell to his death in the Aegean Sea. Knossos is also associated with the legend of the Minotaur, the creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man, that supposedly lived in a labyrinth beneath the palace.

The "Throne Room" with its gypsum throne and benches built to accommodate sixteen people

Normally people enter Knossos from the west and move in a clockwise direction but in a brilliantly strategic move, our guide started our tour on the other side. For the first part of our visit, we had unobstructed views of the multi-storied buildings excavated by Arthur Evans. While the British archaeologist is not responsible for discovering Knossos or Minoan civilization, he did give it its name. In 1894, Evans visited Crete and the site of Knossos for the first time. Three years later, he purchased the land on which the palace was located and spent the rest of his life excavating its ruins and interpreting them.

The female designated "La Parisienne" by Arthur Evans

And "La Parisienne? After our tour guide showed us a photo of her, we had the pleasure of making her acquaintance at the Archeological Museum in Iraklion. It's where you'll find many of the colorful frescoes and statues removed from Knossos Palace, along with an amazing collection of ancient jewelry, vases ornate drinking vessels and the famous Phaestos Disc.

In addition to visiting Knossos Palace and the Archeological Museum, we wandered along Korai Street with its hipster cafés and bars before having a delicious lunch at the Amateur Fisherman's Association Restaurant.

Please click here to see additional photos of Crete.

While at Knossos, our guide pointed out cement columns and other structures built by Evans and mentioned the ongoing debate about his reconstitutions of the palace. If you would like to know more about "Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery", please click here to read an extremely informative article from The New York Review of Books. With special thanks to Anne for posting the link on Facebook.

The female figure with vivid make-up in the top row, third to the right, was named "La Parisienne" by Arthur Evans. Her larger size indicates that she was probably a leading priestess. Knossos Palace, Final Palatial Period 1450-1350/1300 BC

Friday, September 6, 2013

Chatting with chanteuse Caroline Nin of the globally acclaimed show, "Hymne à Piaf"

After hearing Caroline Nin's spine-tingling renditions of some Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich songs at a gathering hosted by My French Life, I was determined to go to "Hymne à Piaf" last season. When I was finally able to get tickets, I was mesmerized by the storyline of Piaf's life and Nin's soulful voice. Thanks to a very successful season, Caroline was asked to extend the globally acclaimed show until January 4, 2014. I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk with Caroline prior to opening night.

You and your bi-lingual show, "Hymne à Piaf", have received so much coverage in Paris that I feel as if I already know quite a lot about you. For those who aren't familiar with your work, please tell us about your background. 
I was born in the North of France but consider myself a Parisian because I grew up here. When I was 20, I wanted to be an actress and studied at the Conservatoire de Paris. After failing my exams twice, I came across a job for singing waitresses at the Hollywood Savoy. When I worked there, we used to perform songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Now, it's more rock and roll. Anyway, that's where I found out that I love to sing. My first gigs were in Paris. But then I decided to move to London to improve my English. It's important for jazz singers to have impeccable pronunciation and I'm a perfectionist.

In London, I became a cabaret singer. In 1999, I was signed by EMI Records to sing “Auld Lang Syne”. I was going to be their new European face. They even scheduled a performance at Richard Branson's castle. But then Cliff Richard came out with his millennium version of "Auld Lang Syne" that went straight to the top of the charts.

So, I went back to Paris and signed a five year contract with the Lido. Even though I did 120 shows, my schedule was flexible. I started performing in Australia, where I've done very well. In June 2011, I performed "Hymne à Piaf" in front of a sold-out audience of 1,200 people at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. That's the night that the show was nominated for the Helpmann Award's "Best Cabaret Show".

You've been performing Edith Piaf songs for 10 years. What do you think of Marion Cotillard's portrayal of her in "La Vie en Rose"?
At first, I was reluctant to see it. It's the same way I feel about the new movie about Princess Diana. When someone is so famous, I think it's hard for an actress to get it right. But I was gobsmacked. Marion Cotillard did it for me. I know Piaf backwards and forwards. Cotillard was excellent. Now, I watch "La Vie en Rose" before the start of each season.

A new biography, "Piaf, A French Myth", was released this week. According to reviews, author Robert Belleret asserts that several falsehoods about the singer's life were deliberately perpetuated by Piaf and her entourage. Why is it important to keep her memory alive, even if it perpetuates the myth? 
Edith Piaf has a strong power, just like Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and other geniuses who died too young and didn't have enough time on this planet. It's the power of her soul. After several performances of "Hymne à Piaf", I start to transform into her. My posture changes. I feel as if she's there with me.

That's a good segue to my next question. Where do you go to connect with Edith Piaf?
Père Lachaise. I've heard that there's an Edith Piaf museum in Paris, but I've never been. I prefer to go where she is to have a chat. And, that's where she is. There are usually people gathered around her grave, sometimes Anglos singing "La Vie en Rose".

One place where I haven't been but would like to go is the dressing room of L'Olympia. Edith Piaf saved it from bankruptcy. Imagine being there, in her dressing room. When I performed at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London, I used the same dressing room as Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Miles Davis. It was like a dream come true.

I've been to two of your performances and each time you were wearing black. Is that a tribute to Edith Piaf who performed in a black sheath dress throughout her career?
No, I just think that black looks great on stage. Sometimes I wear red. Or white. I also love to sing in corsets. People think that they can be constricting, but they're good for the posture if you don't tie them too tightly. Putting on a corset and high heels helps get me into my stage persona.

You've interpreted the songs of several famous performers, which one of them would you most like to meet? And what question would you ask?
Edith Piaf. I would ask her about spirituality. That probably sounds strange. Doesn't it? But Piaf was very religious. At that time, France was very Catholic. Everyone went to church and prayed a lot. Piaf was exposed to prostitution at a young age. I would ask about her version of spirituality. She seemed to be driven by her religion. You know, she always used to wear a necklace with a cross.

Which is your favorite song performed by Edith Piaf?
"Mon Dieu" because it's like a prayer. It gets me in the gut, it's anthemic.

Which is your favorite Edith Piaf song to perform?
"Hymne à l'amour". I love the arrangement. It's a soft jazz ballad that Edith Piaf wrote for the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan. He was killed in a plane crash while flying from Paris to New York to see Piaf. So, he never heard it. When I tell the story during my show, people are in shock. I always see women reaching for the hands of their partners because we all understand how awful it would be to lose the love of our life. It's a beautiful song that I sing in English.

You perform "Hymne à Piaf" three times a week. How do you keep it fresh?
That's not a problem because it's such a gift to do this show. It's different every time. People are taken on a journey, a beautiful but tragic journey. I love it. But it's physically difficult. All the songs are belters, ones that require a lot of vocal ability. So, I have to look after myself. When I'm performing, I'm totally dedicated to Edith Piaf. I'm in a kind of bubble.

Why should people see "Hymne à Piaf" instead of another Piaf show? 
There are many Piaf impersonators in Paris who sing one gorgeous song after another. With a storyline in English, I try to give the audience a better understanding of Piaf's life and her work. Plus, my show has been nominated for several international awards and is performed in a thirteenth century cellar.

Can you give us any insider's tips on where to have drinks or dinner after the show?
For drinks, there's a little bar right near the Essaion. It's L'Excelsior. The people are lovely and they have good wine. For dinner, I would go to Au Petit Fer à Cheval, La Belle Hortense, Les Philosophes or La Chaise au Plafonde. The same guy owns all four restaurants. They use fresh produce and serve dinner until 12:30 am.    

Do you have any plans for the 50th anniversary of Edith Piaf's death on October 10/11?
I would like to organize something special, perhaps drinks with the audience after the show. I'll keep you posted.

Caroline Nin performs "Hymne à Piaf", a bilingual tribute to Edith Piaf, at 7:30 pm every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night from September 6 to November 9 and December 26 to January 4. To reserve tickets, call the English box office at +33 (0)6 16 27 90 58 or send an email to Tickets: 25€ / 20€

Théâtre de l'Essaion 
6 rue Pierre au Lard
75004 Paris
Metro: Hotel de Ville/Rambuteau

Caroline Nin's music is also available on iTunes.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is Cruising Right for Me?

"Home" for 11 days. The Noordam in Mykonos.

I'm not going to lie. Readjusting to life in Paris hasn't been easy after our 11 day "Ancient Mysteries Voyage" aboard Holland America's Noordam. I keep referring to our bedroom as a "stateroom" and expecting to wake up in Istanbul, Crete or some other sun-drenched location in the Mediterranean. Life has definitely lost some of its luster. And don't even get me started about how Stéphane doesn't bother to wear a tuxedo for dinner anymore, not even when I remind him it's formal night.

Admittedly, cruising isn't for everyone but just in case you've ever wondered why 20 million passengers booked holidays aboard ships in 2012, I've tried to answer some of the questions that friends have asked about one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry.

We like active vacations. Isn't cruising boring?
With new ports of call to discover, onboard enrichment classes and nightly entertainment, I've never been bored on a cruise ship. The beauty of cruising is that people can be as active as they want or simply relax by the pool. It's a matter of choice. That's why so many people cruise with their extended families. Mom, dad and the kids can ride mopeds around Mykonos while grandma and grandpa play bridge or learn how to keep their vacation photos organized during an on board digital workshop. At the end of the day, everyone can share their adventures over dinner.

Is cruising for older people?
While the average age of cruisers is 55.6 years old, cruising attracts people from all age groups and nationalities. During our last cruise, we met families with young children and teenagers, newlyweds, couples whose children had recently left home and quite a few retired Australians and Canadians, who had already been cruising for 22 days when we joined the ship in Athens. It is true, however, that different cruise lines and itineraries tend to appeal to different age groups. When my daughter and I did a five night Caribbean cruise during her Spring Break from university, I was one of the older passengers. Conversely, we decided against doing a Norwegian fjords cruise with our 23 year old son and 25 year old daughter when I learned that there wouldn't be many of their peers aboard ship. If the age of the other passengers is of concern, it's advisable to talk with a travel agent or do some research on CruiseCritic.

If you're open to meeting new people, you may discover that some of the most fascinating dinner companions are in their 70s and 80s. We had a very interesting discussion with a retired Armenian man and his wife who immigrated to Australia from Egypt, as well as with many other retired couples onboard. In general, cruisers are very well-traveled people.

Are the shore excursions really expensive?
They certainly can be if you book them through the ship. That's one of the reasons why we started booking our tours with local travel agencies. Again, it pays to do some online research beforehand. If you decide to book your own tours, be sure that the company will refund your deposit if the cruise line changes the itinerary and that they'll accept full financial responsibility if they don't get you back to the ship on time. When Holland America decided to change the itinerary of our cruise from Egypt to Israel because of political unrest, we could have potentially lost quite a bit of money if we had paid for a non-refundable tour to the pyramids with an independent travel agency.

Another advantage of booking a tour with a local travel agency is that you'll probably end up with a small group of people from the ship. That's what happened with us in Israel. After two days touring Jerusalem and floating in the Dead Sea together, we were fast friends. One of the couples from the group even invited the rest of us to their luxurious suite for champagne on formal nights. That probably wouldn't have happened if we had gone on the larger tours organized by Holland America.

Will I gain a lot of weight?
I don't know. It depends how much restraint you have! With free food at your fingertips 24 hours a day, it's definitely easy to pile on the pounds. After allowing myself to indulge in omelets, pizza, chocolate chip cookies and several trips to the taco bar during the first couple of days, I zeroed in on the healthy options for the remaining days. With Swiss muesli for breakfast, salads and fish for lunch and small-portioned light dinners, I managed to keep my weight under control. It also helped that we visited the gym on sea days and walked a lot while we were on shore.

One of the Noordam's spectacular shows featured a couple of Parisian themed songs!

Can I stay connected?
Yes, but the shipboard satellite connection is painfully slow and expensive. During the first days of our cruise, I suffered from serious social media withdrawal. It was ugly. But gradually the jitters stopped as I immersed myself in the pleasure of living in the moment. Rather than thinking about my next post, tweet or Facebook update, I marveled at sunsets and interacted with delightful people, including my husband. In fact, Stéphane would probably list the limited internet access as one of his top reasons for going on a cruise.

If you absolutely need to stay connected for work or family reasons, watch the daily program for specials. Cruise lines tend to offer reductions on internet packages a couple of times during each cruise, usually on days when most people go ashore. When I had trouble uploading a photo, the internet manager told me that the satellite connection is fastest when passengers are at dinner or otherwise occupied. Don't even think about trying to log on during sea days. It's frustratingly impossible.

What's your favorite cruise line?
It's hard to say. After cruising with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Holland America, we've come to realize that each line has its own distinct personality that appeals to different kinds of passengers. Talk with your travel agent or read articles like CruiseCritic's "How to Pick a Cruise Ship" to determine which line is right for you.

During the next couple of weeks, my Paris posts will be interspersed with posts about some of the ports of call that we visited. But for now, I'm going to put on my swimming suit, sunscreen and flip flops. Maybe then I'll feel like I'm still cruising on the Mediterranean.

Anchors aweigh! Leaving Athens on the first day of our cruise.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Searching for mustard in Dijon, France

Maille Mustard boutique in Dijon.

Mustard, Crème de cassis and wine - that's what popped into my mind when we finally decided that Dijon would be a good place to spend the night on our way home from Switzerland last weekend. Given my mother's penchant for all kinds of mustard and the fact that an entire shelf of her refrigerator was formerly reserved for the exclusive storage of this yellow condiment, visiting a mustard factory was at the top of my "to do" list. The only problem, as a search of the internet quickly revealed, is that Dijon's oldest mustard factory was forced to close its doors in 2009 after demand for mustard declined in France.

A subsequent search of the internet uncovered a post by fellow blogger Kallie, who had the good fortune to participate in a 45 minute mustard making workshop at La Cuisine de Madeleine in July. According to Kallie, it was one of the highlights of her recent trip to France. Excited by the prospect of learning the traditional way to grind black mustard seeds and verjuice (or in this case Chardonnay) into a spicy yellow sauce, I was disappointed when we arrived in Dijon shortly after La Cuisine de Madeleine had already closed its doors for the weekend.

Determined to do some advance planning for an upcoming trip to Dijon in October, we went to the Dijon Tourist Office to ask for more information. When the officer revealed that the only way for us to see the production of mustard would be to travel to the Fallot Mustard Mill in nearby Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy, I couldn't help replying that it seemed a bit odd that there wasn't a single, solitary mustard factory that we could visit in Dijon. She agreed.

My quest took another twist when I was confronted by jar after jar of mustard all claiming that their first name was "Dijon". Baffled by this designation, I asked the shop assistant if any certification, such as "controlled designation of origin" (AOC), exists for Dijon mustard. She leaned towards me and whispered in a low voice that any condiment company can call its product "Dijon mustard" as long as they follow the traditional recipe. She also divulged that 95% of the seeds used to produce Dijon mustard are imported. It turns out that a whopping 80% of the seeds come from Canada, while the United States, Hungary, Romania and Denmark provide the rest of the seeds. Directing me towards a jar of Edmond Fallot's mustard with a discrete red label, she explained that it was made with mustard seeds grown exclusively in Burgundy and a white wine produced from the Aligoté grape variety in Burgundy. While I hadn't found real Dijon mustard, I was content to take some jars of authentic Burgundy mustard home with me. The next time I'm in Dijon, I'll have to take a course to learn how to make it myself!

There are lots of shops where you can buy mustard, Crème de cassis, Nonnettes and other regional specialities in Dijon. After paying considerably more than the market price for a large pot of mustard at one touristy store, we decided that we preferred the service and prices at Bourgogne Street. It's conveniently located at 61 rue de la Liberté, Dijon.

At odds with my findings in Dijon, my internet search also uncovered the news that mustard is the world's fastest growing condiment. Here's an excerpt from a July 2013 Yahoo Finance article, "The Yellow Commodity Hotter Than Gold": Among the varieties now on store shelves: Dusseldorf-style mustards (“Move over Dijon,” declared one food writer last year), fruity mustards (blueberry, anyone?) and the super-coarse Tin Mustard (it’s got a texture reminiscent of caviar, say fans). Perhaps this explains why Dijon mustard isn't doing so well in France or abroad.

Please click here to see photos of some of the mustard I spotted in Dijon.

Flags flying on the Rue de la Liberté, right next to the Maille mustard boutique.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday's Picture and a Song: "Coucher du Soleil" by Yves Duteil

Sunset and a splash. Mykonos, Greece.

Like the setting sun, my vacation has come to an end.

Like the rising sun, I feel rejuvenated.

After being disconnected from social media for an unprecedented amount of time, I have lots of ideas for upcoming posts. I'll be back tomorrow with one about Dijon, Mykonos, cruising or Israel.

Please click here if you would like to see additional photos of the rising and setting sun that I posted on Facebook.

Sunrise. Istanbul, Turkey.