By Larry Levine –
PART ONE – DEPARTURE
I should be brimming with excitement and anticipation as I wait to board our flight to Paris. Instead, what I’m feeling about our three-week vacation in France and England is curiosity at how we will be received.
We have done this circuit in the past. Always, I have been an up-beat American, greeted by the French and the English as a valued guest. I’m not sure it will be the same this time. Now, America’s allies unflinchingly voice distrust of our government and brand us a rogue nation as our President pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Imagine, the United States of America, a rogue nation. How will I explain that to the French and English? I certainly will not defend it.
I expect to be greeted by a general sense of bewilderment and to face questions about how America could come to this.
There may be degrees of difference between how we will be met in France and England. After all, in their recent election the French rejected the isolationist, conservative candidate by an overwhelming margin. They have a right to be astounded by what is happening in the U.S. The English, on the other hand, swallowed the isolationist fear-mongering and voted to leave the European Union. Their right to wonder is less clear.
I will welcome conversations with taxi drivers, waiters, hotel clerks, or anyone else who wants to enter into a discussion. I will offer my views honestly and I will probe for their perspectives with caution, in the belief that their views of America are not at all unjustified.
As this is a food magazine, the thrust of the features I publish during this trip still will be food oriented. But I won’t shrink from including social and political commentary where it provides a greater context. Of course, I could be surprised and find that no one cares a wit about what is happening in the U.S.
The initial purpose of this trip was to visit Jennifer’s family near the south coast of England. I suggested going first to France for a couple of days to get over any jet lag, see Monet’s Gardens at Giverny and make a long-anticipated pilgrimage to the Normandy Coast. Then Jennifer added her desire to visit the Lake District in England and I pointed out we had not spent any time in London in recent years.
While in France, we will dine at Le Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris. It’s been in operation since 1686, before there was a United States of America. We will stroll the Champs-Élysées and lunch at an outdoor café. We will enjoy fresh baguettes and croissants with jam for breakfast along with steaming cups of coffee. And if we have the time, we’ll go to Angelina for the greatest hot chocolate in the history of the universe.
We will be at Giverny in the springtime, the perfect time to view the gardens Monet depicted in his incredible paintings. We will be at Bayeux on the Normandy Coast on June 6, the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, the day American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches to begin the liberation of France from the Nazis.
In England, in addition to spending time with Jennifer’s family, we will stay three nights in Stratford-Upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s home. In the Lake District we will return to the beautiful Sharrow Bay County House, where we stopped for one night several years ago and vowed to return. There we will spend our days on the waters of Ullswater and exploring the countryside. Then we will dine all three nights at the beautiful restaurant at the hotel.
Two exciting food experiences await us in London. First, we will have dinner at Rules on Maiden Lane near Covent Garden. We had lunch there a few years ago and I’ve been itching to go back. Rules is the oldest restaurant in London, in operation since 1789. The menu and the décor are phenomenal. Rules will come after a matinee performance of 42nd Street at the Drury Lane Theatre. Yes, I’ve seen it dozens of times before. But so what.
The other anticipated food moments will be High Tea at the Ritz, where they still require a coat and tie for male patrons.
We’ve made dinner reservations for most of the trip, but left some opportunities for bistro or pub exploration. I hope you will click in each day to follow along with us. See you in Paris, where we will stay at the Relais Christine, near the lovely Pont Neuf.
PART TWO – HAPPY EATING IN TRUMP-FREE FRANCE
By Larry Levine –
Twenty-four hours and not a single mention of Donald Trump.
We are pleasantly encamped in the Hotel Relais Christine in Paris after an event-free Air France flight from Los Angeles and a harrowing drive into and through the city in Friday afternoon traffic.
I was happy to see that the research funded by several airlines is paying off and there is a marked uptick in the food offerings aloft. In an earlier post, I discussed why it is so difficult to provide flavorful meals in the air and what the airlines were attempting to do to rectify the situation.
For Air France, the culinary consultant is the respected Daniel Boulud. His recommendation, among the five offerings for “hot dishes” was Basque-style chicken. I recalled what I learned in researching that earlier article and that’s what I ordered. I actually was flavorful and enjoyable.
A nap was the first order of business upon arrival at the hotel. Then we plunged into the neighborhood Jennifer and I each recalled from our previous stay. It was 6 p.m. on a Friday and the streets were teeming with locals and tourists in quest of sustenance and any of the uncountable local restaurants. Want Indian food? Japanese? Italian? Greek? French? All plentifully present and most of them eerily familiar from the last time we walked these streets.
The display of shell fish outside Atlas at 11 Rue De Buci was attractive. We asked for a table far inside to avoid the pall of cigarette smoke that hung over the outdoor dining area. After asking for a half-liter of sauvignon blanc, Jennifer ordered an assortment of shrimp, welks and Spanish mussels. I ordered half dozen “Burgundy snails XXL” and a platter of Normandy lobster, crab, shrimp, four different kinds of oysters, and mussels.
What was set before us was prodigious. First, the snails were the largest I’ve ever seen and they were delicious. Then we tackled the shell fish with unbridled delight. It was a lot of food, a very lot of food. But we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and we polished off the who bunch of it. The mussels were raw, a first for each of us. Jennifer downed a few and decided they weren’t for her. So, I assumed responsibility for the lot of them and passed some of the lobster and crab her way.
Stuffed. Sure. But the dessert tray included a lovely, individual-size tarlatan for me and a napoleon for Jennifer. That and some lovely espresso and we were done.
The only thing left was to congratulate ourselves and each other for having gotten together 50 years ago and stayed together this long. How awful, we said, if we had gotten together with people who didn’t like to eat this way.
Not possible, I said.
PART THREE – YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT OLD?
By Larry Levine –
Stick a shovel in the ground in England and you’re likely to find something at least 400 years old. The irrigation system built during the Roman occupation still is in place and operational.
In Los Angeles we fight to preserve the original Golden Arches, or some other similar trinket of the 20th century.
But dinner in Paris the other night give old a new meaning. We dined at a restaurant that has been in continuous operation in Paris since before there was a United States of America. It’s Le Procope and it has been serving patrons since 1686. That’s 90 years before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was published and 101 years before the U.S. Constitution was signed.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were frequent diners at Le Procope and allegedly debated and developed portions of the U.S. Constitution in a room on the second floor of the restaurant. Napoleon’s famous hat, which he left as security for a dinner bill one night, is on display in the lobby. There’s a room devoted to Voltaire’s desk.
Although the restaurant has been renovated since those days, the décor is reflective of the times.
The food on today’s menu will warm the heart of a Francophile. Amid all this history and glamor, we started our dinner with a glass of Louis Rœderer Brut Premier Champaign. After all, when in France … Then I had goose liver foie gras. YES. I SAID GOOSE LIVER. I haven’t had goose liver foie gras in so long I can’t remember when or where. In the state’s foie gras is strictly duck liver and there are efforts constantly afoot to ban even that. Our waiter recommended a Château du Levant sauterne as the wine to accompany the course. I tasted it before the food arrived and found it very sweet. But as an accompaniment to the foie gras, it was perfect. Jennifer enjoyed a first course of creamy burrata cheese and tomatoes. Her wine throughout the meal was a Côtes-du-Rhône Parallèle 45.
My main was a generous portion of steak tartare with French fried potatoes and toast points. The waiter selected a Bordeaux Les Hauts de la Gaffelière for this course. For Jennifer it was braised ox cheeks accompanied by tube pasta in a wonderfully rich sauce. After all, when in France …
Dessert got just plain decadent. I had Mille-feuille à la vanille made with flakey pastry and a beyond-rich whipped cream. Jennifer went for Café Liégeois Procope, which was a white coffee ice cream, iced coffee, coffee-flavored panna cotta, and vanilla whipped cream served in what looked like an old-fashioned, very tall ice cream soda glass.
We topped the whole thing off with a double espresso.
You can see the full Le Procope menu by here.
We had eaten at Le Procope before this trip, when we had lunch with friends. That time I had coq au vin and learned that the French make this dish with parts from a six-pound rooster, not from a chicken as is done throughout the U.S.
So, now we have accomplished the first of our two planned old-restaurant experiences for this vacation. The second will be at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London the night before we head for home. In the meantime, it’s on to Giverny and Monet’s gardens.
PART FOUR – D-DAY AT NORMANDY, THEN AND NOW
By Larry Levine –
I stood on the sand at Utah Beach and felt history sweep over me. I walked the sands of Omaha Beach, looked out at the roiling sea and envisioned the waves of American soldiers landing on the shore.
It was June 6, 2017 – the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, the day American, British and Canadian troops stormed the Nazi bunkers on the Normandy coast to begin the liberation of France. I cannot recall a time when I didn’t want to visit this place. That it could be on the actual day of the anniversary and with Jennifer, a child of the war, beside me made it even more meaningful.
I’ve never been a fan of the glorification of war. I’m partial to the words of Paddy Chayefsky in “The Americanization of Emily,” where he wrote of military parades and other such displays as a way to assure that future generations view death in battle as a worthy goal. Because of that, a hint of antipathy tinged my anticipation of the day.
What I found, however, was not glorification but commemoration, a distinction I had not considered before. Those who died on these beaches altered the course of history and halted a monstrous time in the journey of humankind. I cannot use the word sacrifice for what they did because to me sacrifice is something done voluntarily. No one volunteered to be there or to die that day. They were drafted and sent to fight in what admittedly was a worthy cause. Their bravery cannot be denied, as they did what they did in the face of what must have been unmeasurable fear.
There is a somberness about the Normandy beaches, museums and cemeteries and a distinct absence of the kind of commercialization we expect at tourist attractions in the U.S. We found gift shops only in the museum and restaurant at Utah Beach.
There are Nazi bunkers to be visited, craters from Allied bombs left unfilled, barbed wire that blocked the advancing armies still in place. Massive blocks of concrete shipped from England to aid the landing are clearly visible beyond the tide line. The seawalls put in place by the Germans to block a possible landing are maintained as an historical reminder.
We spent almost no time in the Utah beach museum, where remnants of the German war machine are on display. We felt we didn’t need to be schooled regarding the Nazi atrocities. It is important that they be on display for succeeding generations. But Jennifer and I witnessed the war from our two different perspectives, she as a child in London and me through the newsreels and newspapers in New York and subsequent readings of history. The simple sight of a gas mask shook Jennifer. It was one of her earliest memories of life in England.
No matter how may movies and documentaries we have seen, it is impossible to envision the scope of the D-Day operation without actually seeing it. The five beaches that were the landing sites stretch for 80 miles – 80 miles of landing craft, helmeted troops, trucks and tanks advancing and Nazi machine guns and cannons raining hell on the liberators. The landing craft appear much larger in the movies we see than the actual ones used that day and on display now.
We were able to go into the Nazi command bunker and see the ocean as they might have seen it that day. We also could see how the weather and natural terrain hid many of the Allies from Nazi view. Our tour guide, Gisele, was a 40-year-old Brazilian woman whose degree is in history. She took us back to WW I and the emergence of Hitler and through a description of the strategic planning, logistical preparations and actual moments of the landing. Much of it I knew; some I had forgotten; some of the information was new.
We drove through the countryside along which the liberating armies began their march to free Paris, passing many of the same homes and farms that were there 73 years ago. .
It is unimaginable, all of it is fathomable, without actually seeing it. And we saw it on a cold, windy, rainy day – not as rough as it was 73 years ago during the actual landing, but rough enough to create the feeling. Gisele told us for the last five years D-Day had been bright and sunny and to her that never seemed right.
I look at most military cemeteries through the prism of Chayefsky’s writing. But once again, the American cemetery at Normandy is a commemoration, not a celebration. Jennifer looked out across the cemetery, with the sea to the right and all the crosses and stars of David facing west toward the U.S., and she wept a silent “thank you for saving my country and giving me my freedom.” It’s something she can feel that I never could.
That’s the kind of place the Normandy coast is today. All these years later, the French have not forgotten. Signs in shop windows read “Thank you, liberators.” French residents and foreign visitors, both military and civilian, mingle with a sense of mutual respect and understanding. There is no glorification of war here, no aggrandizement of warriors, just a reminder of what must never again be permitted. Gisele told us visitors come from all over the world, but not from German, Japan, or Russia.
Now, on summer days in good weather families gather on the beaches for picnics. Children splash in the water and shout with joy. That’s the way it was before the war and restoring this place to its people was part of what happened on June 6, 1944.
But on this day – June 6, 2017 – as night fell on another anniversary, the restaurants were full. Men and women in uniforms from many countries, visitors mostly from American and Britain, and French locals gathered to sip wine and eat dinner and appreciate the freedom that has been handed down to them.
Life goes on today in the City of Bayeux, where we were staying. This was the first city liberated by the Allies. It served as the capital of France until the liberation of Paris. And today, just another Wednesday morning, we strolled with hundreds of local residents through an outdoor market, where ample supplies of fish, chicken, cheese, and produce were on display. For lunch, we sat with French shop workers and business owners and sipped wine and ate chartoucherie, cheese and pate.
This was a day to relax and reflect on what we witnessed yesterday before moving on with our travels – a day to realize that for having been here, our lives will never be quite the same.
(The photo with this feature is the street market in Bayeux the morning after the D-Day anniversary.)
(NOTE: Fifty days after D-Day, my uncle Irving Zucker was killed in the Battle of the Hedgerows, not far from here. I remember him well and dedicate this trip and this feature to him.)
PART FIVE – AU RIVOIR, FRANCE, WITH JUST ONE TRUMP MENTION
By Larry Levine –
Behind us, the coastline of France. With us, the memories of a wonderful and adventuresome week. Ahead, not yet in view, the White Cliffs of Dover, England.
As the ferry sets off across the English Channel, we take with us the feeling of warmth and welcome of the French people who hosted us for a week and for their sometimes funny, idiosyncratic and challenging ways.
This would have been a very different trip if Emmanuel Macron had not won the French Presidential election. Had the French people elected instead the holocaust-denying far right candidate, there would have been a dark cloud over us this vacation and I would be leaving with the thought that I might never return to France. But Macron won, the far right was rejected by an overwhelming majority and I could look our French hosts in the eye with admiration and joy.
In our entire week in France there was only one mention of Donald Trump. That came in the context of our tour guide at the Normandy beaches discussing Hitler’s rise to power. She likened Hitler’s demagogic manipulation of the 1930s to Trump’s bellicose rhetoric in 2016. I was surprised we didn’t hear more commentary about the role of America in the world today and face more questions about what has happened to the American people.
This trip, so far, has been proof that if you keep going life will continue to serve up new discoveries and thrills. Certainly, the time we spent at the Normandy beaches on the anniversary of D-Day was life-altering. (You can read about that day in Part Four of this series.) The moment, when I walked through the gate at Monet’s Water Garden in Giverny, stood on the bridge and looked at the scene as he had painted it, was breath-taking. I rank it with my first glimpse of the Statue of David, my first look at The Old Course at St. Andrews, my first visit to Teatro La Scala in Milan and my time spent looking into the eyes of the Mona Lisa. All indelibly etched in my memory.
Dinner on our last night in France brought another first. At the restaurant Sole Meunier, I ordered the signature dish, sole sautéed in a lemon butter sauce. A spoiled American, I was surprised when I was served a whole fish, with only the head removed. “The biggest sole in the city,” the French waiter said as he set the plate in front of me.
I had no choice. I was about to fillet a whole fish on my own, just as I’ve seen it done by waiters and by Jacque Pepin on television. With a fish knife and a fork I set to work and swelled with fascination and satisfaction as I quickly dispatched every bone in that fish. I had extracted four perfect fillets. Not one bone left to enter my mouth; the skeleton sitting across the far end of the plate; the edge bones carefully piled to the side. I think this was the best meal I had during the French leg of this trip, and not just because it was my first fillet. The fish itself was delicious and the potatoes served with it were heavenly. For a first course I had escargot in a garlic-butter sauce with flakey pastry. For dessert I ordered strawberries with a very light lemon sauce and I topped it all off with an espresso.
On the other hand, France is a land where street signs seem to be optional. You can drive for blocks in a city and not see as sign to tell you where you are. That can make it difficult to find your hotel. Even the GPS in the rental car found this confusing. Twice we had to phone the hotel to ask for directions because the GPS and one-way streets were having an argument and both times I was not able to tell the hotel where we were because there were no street signs.
This was the first time we ventured outside of Paris and away from the restaurants of the great chefs of France. What we found is that restaurants in the rest of the county are no different than they are in most of the U.S. – no better, no worse. In Giverny and Bayeux we asked the hotel staff for recommendations and made reservations ahead of time. I’m sure they suggested the better places in each city. The restaurants were fine – not great, but fine. I guess as an American I was inclined to associate French food with fine dining. Silly mistake. The food in any restaurant in the world is as good as the owner wants it to be and the chef is capable of delivering.
Foie gras in France means paté, never the sautéed piece of liver that sometimes is served in the states. In the U.S. it will only be duck liver. But in France it might be either duck or goose, depending upon the restaurant. To have goose foie gras again after all these decades was a welcomed treat.
Butter in France is unlike any commercial butter in the U.S. I never eat butter at home. I can’t stop eating it here. Breads in France will ruin a person who must then return to the U.S. and eat what is produced there and French cheeses are extraordinary.
Not being able to speak French is not fatal. Even locals who speak no English can make themselves understood with hand gestures if the English speaking person is patient and really wants to understand. Same is true in reverse. If you speak no French and you are willing to use gestures and speak slowly, you will be understood. Really, they want to understand and be understood. Speaking of speaking French, Jennifer’s old school-girl French began to return after we had been here a few days. On the way to the ferry terminal this morning, she asked the taxi driver how he was feeling and she did it in flawless French.
I’m looking forward to England. I always do. The question, however, is at the first sight of Dover, will I start singing the World War II song: “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, when the world is free.”
(The photo with this posting is of the Water Lilies at Monet’s Water Garden in Giverny, France, take at the approximate point at which he painted his wonderful work.)
PART SIX – HOME(S) AWAY FROM HOME
By Larry Levine –
We are in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare country, for two nights before we motor north to the magical Lake District of England.
Don’t you love the name – Stratford-Upon-Avon. It makes you think there may be some other Stratford someplace, like Stratford-Off-Avon. Avon, of course, means the Avon River of black-swans-on-the-Avon fame. Many years ago I took a photo of a reflection of enchanting Warwick (pronounced Warick) Castle in the Avon. It is one of the best photos I’ve ever snapped. But it was in the old film camera days, so I can’t post it here. An enlargement hangs on my office wall and you are welcome to stop by and see it. Better phone first, as I’m trying not to be there any more than what is absolutely necessary these days.
The Brits are wonderfully descriptive with the mother tongue. In the car on the way into London from the airport once, we heard a news report of a traffic accident involving a “bendy bus.” Wonderful. I knew in an instant what they meant. If a foreigner were to land somewhere in the U.S. and hear a report of an accident involving and articulated bus they wouldn’t have the slightest idea what had happened. Of course, in England that would be “the foggiest idea.”
See what I mean. Dessert is “pudding” whether it’s pudding, ice cream, cake, pie, or any number of other things. “Bangers” of course are sausages. A “lay by” is a place to pull off the road for fuel, a toilet, or lunch. When someone promises to “knock you up,” it simply means they’ll stop by for a visit and knock at the door. A bungalow is a private home. A flat is an apartment. And a chemist is a pharmacy.
I’ve learned all this and much more over the years of being married to a Brit, living with the language differences for nearly 50 years, and visiting the United Kingdom countless times.
I thought about all these things today as we drove up from the south coast and a five-day visit with Jennifer’s bother and his family. I say “we drove” as if I had anything to do with it. I navigated; Jennifer operated the car. She grew up here. She knows which way to look at an intersection. I drove for a few days at the start of our first visit many years ago, when we spent five weeks motoring around England, Scotland and Wales. After the first few days, Jennifer took over the driving for the rest of the trip. When I drive, we both are terrified.
Anyway, after getting us onto the A24 (highway) this morning and telling Jennifer to just stay on this road for 93 miles, I was able to look up from the Collins map book and admire the scenery. Except when Jennifer would interrupt every few miles and ask, “Roundabout, what do I do?” and I would answer, “Just keep straight on.” I actually said “straight on,” like a true Brit. I was using the Collins because our GPS lady had gotten us lost a few times earlier in the trip. This time her directions and mine were spot on. (There I go again.) As a matter of fact, after we made two wrong turns inside Stratford-Upon-Avon, GPS lady got us found. So, she did a better job than me and Collins. But getting lost wasn’t very good for Jennifer’s stress level. Immediately upon arrival, she took a nap while I sat down to write this piece.
For a small island with so many people, England has a remarkable amount of green space. There are large plots for farming and lush green forests. We’d crest a hill and there would be a panorama of multiple shades of green as far as the eye could see, as long as I didn’t look up at the inevitable clouds. (In England, if you wake up to a bright, sunny day, it is advisable to take an umbrella.)
I thought, as we drove today, this has become a second home to me. We have driven this route many times before, usually when heading for the airport and home after visiting family. So many of the things we drove by and even some of the bends (curves) in the road were that familiar. I’m comfortable here, with these people and their funny words and expressions, their mediocre pub food, great butter, nice cheeses, fine beers, horrible coffee, and never-be-defeated view of life.
There is a tendency to romanticize British pubs. They’re fine as long as you order a ploughman’s lunch, tea and scones, or bangers and mash. But the beef and pork dishes probably will be over-cooked and drowned in some kind of sauce. There’s no predicting what kind of fish will be wrapped in the breading of your fish and chips order. I’ve found it to be that way at most of the everyday village restaurants as well as the pubs.
We had dinner tonight at a place called 9 Church Street, which appropriately is located in a building of that address. Jennifer was able to climb the steep staircase using her cane, but it took great effort. There are national laws regarding handicapped accesses. They are largely ignored, and given the age of some of the buildings, it’s understandable. The hotel in which we are staying is in a building renovated from before Shakespeare’s time. The floors slope, there are steps up and down in the middle of hallways and the elevator is in some far corner away from everything. Other buildings all around us date back to Henry VIII. You can’t easily retrofit these places.
The quirky menu was typical of what is found throughout the country, except in some of the celebrity-chef or fine dining places. I ordered “fried buttermilk chicken, toasted baby gem, Caesar dressing” for a starter. It was iceberg lettuce with a distinctly unCaesar dressing and four heavily-breaded McNugget type things. For my main I ordered something called “steak bavette with chimichurri.” It turned out to be skirt steak, which is my favorite cut of beef. I scrapped off the chimichurri and enjoyed the steak with some very nice French fries, (which in the U.K. are called chips).
Jennifer had roasted beets with whipped curds of goats cheese and then poached gammon, which is a piece of ham that has been smoked or cured like bacon. By the way, British bacon is like nothing we’ve ever seen in the states. They call our bacon “streaky bacon” because of all the fat. British bacon is cured or smoked ham with fat only around the edges.
On the other hand, we sat today at a picnic table on the banks of the Avon and had fresh baked scones with clotted cream, jam, fresh strawberries and a pot of tea. How terribly civilized and absolutely delicious.
Some of these things are charming and some are just puzzling. But I don’t care. I come to England because that’s where Jennifer is from and, even though she’s been in the U.S. since 1962, this still is her home, just as New York still feels like home to me. We come here to visit her family and to touch some incredible history. We come here so I can have “full fry ups” for breakfast and not feel guilty. We come here because, while it’s Jennifer’s ancestral home, to me if feels like one of my second homes.
(The photo with this posting is a sign on a restaurant in Stratford-Upon-Avon. And, yes, they do serve lamb on Sheep Street.)
PART SEVEN – IT TOOK 18 YEARS, BUT WE’RE BACK
By Larry Levine –
It was 18 years ago – 1999 – near the end of a magical five-week drive through England, Scotland and Wales. We had visited many of the sites of the Arthurian legend, stayed at manor houses and castles, dined with some of the finest chefs in England at a time when manor houses and castles were competing to lure chefs away from each other. Every time we stopped at a new place, I had to teach the bartender how to make a perfect Manhattan as we relaxed in the solon before dinner. It was quite a posh life.
One the way south, we needed a place to breakup what otherwise would have been a long drive. Our travel agent had booked us into the Sharrow Bay Country House on Lake Ullswater in the Lake District of England. We were enchanted. The setting on the shore of the lake was beautiful. Emerald green hills rose from the lakeside and were reflected in the rippling water. And we would long remember the restaurant, with its views of the lake and magnificent food.
After dinner, Jennifer retired to our room and I went to the conservancy to relax. The only other people there were a British couple. The man sat at the piano and played songs from the war years. When he began to play “The White Cliffs of Dover”, they fumbled with the words. I started to sing along and they followed my lead – an American on vacation teaching two Brits the words to one of their nation’s best-loved songs.
The next morning, we were on our way. But we vowed to return someday. That day was Thursday.
It was cold, windy, and rainy when we arrived, not untypical for this region. From our room we watched the changing weather on the lake and surrounding hillsides. Then, umbrellas aloft, we made our way to the restaurant.
We were seated first in the lounge. We each ordered a glass of prosecco and through the picture window we counted the sail boats anchored by the other shore. We were served two amuse bouche – a cheese puff and a fish cake. Then the captain came and took our orders for dinner and wine.
Soon, we were summoned to the restaurant. Our alcove table for two provided a view of the lake. The rain stopped and hints of sun broke through. Jennifer was convinced there had to be a rainbow, but she couldn’t find it.
Dinner was served at a leisurely pace. For me it was a starter of roasted quail leg and breast with a quail egg, mushroom puree and enoki mushrooms fried to a crisp. Then it was a magnificent breast of Gressingham duck, bred and raised in a small village in Lancashire in the far north of England. The duck was served with spiced carrots, shallots, roasted lemon and thyme and a Madeira sauce. I finished with a soufflé of St. Clements citrus and a lemongrass ice cream. All this was accompanied by a very good bottle of Barolo. It was a meal for the ages.
Jennifer skipped a starter course. For her main she had Herdwick lamb, herb crusted with sweetbread black pudding, fried black kale and Roskoff onion confit. Turns out it wasn’t really lamb, but rather something call hogget. The captain explained that while lamb is sheep in the first year of life, hogget is sheep in its second year, after it has had a chance to feed on grass for a longer time and develop a stronger flavor. After the second year, it becomes mutton. For dessert Jennifer had a decadent chocolate infusion, three different chocolate offerings comprised of dark, milk and white chocolate with accents of cherry, caramel and hazelnut.
Jennifer raved about the flavor of every bite of the lamb and I resolved to have it the next night. Our tastes in lamb are nearly identical.
For night two I ordered seared duck foie gras with roasted figs and buttered spinach as a starter, then the lamb. At the first bite, Jennifer looked at my face a knew something was amiss. “The texture,” I said, “it’s mealy.”
“I thought of that this afternoon and meant to mention it,” she answered.
Too bad. I thought from her reaction the first night, that I was onto something with this hogget business. I was going to preach hogget to all the chefs at restaurants in L.A. But I changed my mind. The flavor was nice, but not at all as wonderful to me as it had been for Jennifer. The texture, however, spoiled it.
Be that as it may, our stay here has been wonderful, well worth the 18-year wait. We spent four hours on a lake yesterday aboard the Lake Ullswater Steamer, which actually is diesel powered. It was very cold and windy, but I got some nice photos. Today dawned bright and sunny with predictions of record heat throughout the England. Jennifer drove us to the nearby village of Pooley Bridge, where we strolled the shops, came across a town craft sale, bought some gifts to take home. In places, the road was not wide enough for two cars. It was at those places where we were most likely to encounter oncoming traffic. Jennifer and the other drivers managed enough social interaction to avoid damage to anyone’s car.
We’re going to skip dinner tonight. Instead, at 4 p.m. we will engage in one of those most civilized of British customs – afternoon tea. It will be finger sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, assorted pastries and tea. I’m sure there are people who will do that and then return three or four hours later for dinner. Not us.
Tomorrow we will overnight back at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Then it will be on to London, where the massive apartment fire and resultant deaths has left a glumness over the city.
(The photo with this feature is the view from our room.)
PART EIGHT – HOW A GPS CAN CAUSE A MONUMENTAL TRAFFIC JAM
By Larry Levine –
Well, that was a morning to remember. I awoke to find Jennifer sitting in the alcove of our room at the Sharrow Bay Country House on Lake Ullswater in the Lake District of England. The drapes open wide and she was reading.
“Look at the view,” she said in a tone that got me out of bed without a moment to even stretch.
The sun had risen behind us and was bouncing a reflection off the hills on the other side of the lake. The water itself was still, like a mirror grabbing onto the images. Swallows had left their nests under the eaves of the building that housed our room. They were darting everywhere, feeding in flight on the midges that danced in the air. Who would want to leave this?
This far north, the last glow of daylight lingers until about 10 p.m. By 3 a.m. morning has made it light enough to see the boats anchored across the lake. Five hours of darkness, that’s all there is just three days before the longest day of the year.
But it was time to go. Our three days in this magic place had come to an end and London awaited after a one-night stopover in Stratford-Upon-Avon to break up the drive. The GPS said the drive would be a shade longer than three hours. Six hours later, we parked behind the Shakespeare Hotel in S-Upon-A.
We hadn’t gone very far – maybe 45 minutes – when the GPS lady told us she was revising the route because of congestion ahead. Jennifer left the decision to her navigator – listen to the GPS lady or follow the Collins Road Guide. Strangely, I had developed more confidence in the GPS lady than I ordinally would invest in a piece of technology.
“Get off at the next exit and we’ll follow her directions,” I said.
You know what’s wrong with this whole scenario? Everyone else driving on the M6 on Fathers’ Day had a GPS of their own. We all got the same advisory. We all got off at the same exit and thousands of us tried to fit onto the two-lane roads through the tiny villages that parallel the M6. At the same time, the northbound traffic was receiving the same GPS messages. Buses, trucks, vans, campers and autos of all sizes were navigating village roads lined with vehicles parked on both sides. Traffic signals in these ordinarily sleepy villages compounded the situation. It took us a bit more than one hour to travel a distance that would have taken about 10 minutes on the M6.
Along the way, I asked Jennifer, “Wonder what would have happened if we stayed on the highway with all those people who have no GPS.”
We speculated that it looked as if something really serious had shut down both sides of this major north-south artery. Later we learned there was a collision – called an “incident” on the highway advisory signs – between a car and a lorry (truck) in the northbound lanes. Southbound lanes were closed for a time to land an air ambulance.
When finally we rejoined the highway, Jennifer pointed to the Range Rover in front of us and said, “That’s the same car that was just ahead of us when we got off the highway.”
By now, Jennifer was a tense bundle of nerves and I was on the border of car sickness. We saw the northbound lanes jammed solid for miles and decided to get south of the whole mess before pulling off at a “services layby,” where she had a Starbuck’s latte, a chocolate chip cookie and a berry yogurt. I sipped tonic water with quinine, a great stomach settler.
The road was crowded the rest of the way, with intermittent slowdowns. By the time we reached our hotel room, we each wanted to collapse in a heap.
Then came dinner. I couldn’t recall what time I made the reservation at The Garrick Inn, so I phoned them. They had no such reservation and were fully booked with tour bus groups. They couldn’t understand why their computer system accepted my reservation and confirmed it because these groups had been booked for months. When we tried to eat at this place five days ago, during our first stop at S-Upon-A, we were told bus groups had the place fully booked.
We wanted to eat at The Garrick Inn because it’s the oldest pub in the city, a timber-framed building that dates back to the 1400s. But Jennifer pointed out as we walked to a different pub, “In my experience, places that cater to bus groups don’t serve very good food.”
Smart lady. We trooped around the corner from our hotel to The Golden Bee and ordered a shandy (beer and 7-up) for Jennifer, a pint of Stella Artois for me and two fish and chip dinners with chips (French fries) and mushy peas. They were out of fish for the fish and chips. That has to be a first in the history of England.
As we took a stroll after dinner, I couldn’t help but think of the swallows flitting through the Lake District morning, the reflections on the lake, and the quite alcove that protected us from the real world. Tomorrow morning, it’s on to London, where the real world awaits us. Just a different kind of real world.
(The photo with this feature is the early morning view from our hotel room at Lake Ullswater.)
PART NINE – HOME AGAIN WITH THOUGHT OF NORMANDY BEACHES AND SUCKLING PIG
Home again, and mostly back to normal. Played golf, cooked dinners, watched the Dodgers, went to the horse races and thought about the trip. Two thoughts dominate:
1. The visit to the Normandy beaches on the anniversary of D-Day was life-altering.
2. I waited two years and didn’t get my suckling pig.
I began this trip curious about whether and how folks in France and England would react to Americans in the time of Donald Trump. During 21 days in France and England, I can recall only three mentions of Trump. One was by our tour guide at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, another in a conversation with our niece, and the final one with two Democratic activists from Pennsylvania who we met at breakfast in our hotel in London the last morning of the trip. I think we can conclude the French and English have other, more localized issues to occupy their attention, things like terrorist bombings, vans ramming into crowds, massive apartment fires, and the U.K trying to figure out how to leave the European Union.
Now that we’re over an unexpectedly severe case of jet lag, let’s touch on some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the trip.
TOP FOOD EXPERIENCE – Sole Meunier in Calais. I had the signature dish, sole meunier sautéed in a lemon butter sauce. A spoiled American, I was surprised when I was served a whole fish, with only the head removed. “The biggest sole in the city,” the French waiter said as he set the plate in front of me. I could have asked him to have the kitchen fillet the fish but that wouldn’t have been sporting. So, I picked up my fish knife and fork and went to work just as I’ve seen it done by waiters and by Jacque Pepin on television. It was the first time I ever filleted a whole fish and I must say I did it like a pro – four perfect fillets and not one bone left to enter my mouth.
This was the best meal of the trip, and not just because it was my first fillet. The fish itself was delicious and the potatoes served with it were heavenly. For a first course I had escargot in a garlic-butter sauce with flakey pastry. For dessert I ordered strawberries with a very light lemon sauce and I finished the meal off with a double espresso.
TOP TRAVEL EXPERIENCE – The beaches at Normandy on the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. The most moving travel experience of my life. I stood on the sand at Utah Beach and felt history sweep over me. I walked the sands of Omaha Beach, looked out at the roiling sea and envisioned the waves of American soldiers landing on the shore. I viewed the English Channel from the Nazi command bunker, saw craters from the Allied bombs, and visited the American cemetery. Current military personnel mixed with D-Day vets in their 90s at restaurants in Bayeux. If you ever have an opportunity to do this, by all means do it. No matter how many movies you have seen and books you have read, you cannot grasp the scope of what happened on those beaches in 1944 or the planning and strategy that went into it until you see it for yourself. If you can, do it with a qualified personal tour guide, not a group tour. I’ll be happy to connect you with our tour guide, who was excellent.
JUST PLAIN FRUSTRATION – Two years ago we had lunch at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London. Suckling pig was on the menu but it wasn’t ready at lunch time. I don’t recall what I had instead, but it was excellent. We promised to come back for the suckling pig next time we were in London. I haven’t had suckling pig since 2005 at Le Calandre in Padava, Italy. It hasn’t been on any menu I’ve seen since then, other than Rules two years ago. I made this Rules reservation four months in advance and checked the menu online regularly in anxious anticipation of the suckling pig. It was on the menu every time. But not the night we showed up there for dinner in June. I told the waiter I had been looking forward to this meal for two years. He told me the chef just decided to change things up. To compound the frustration, I ordered the marinated sardines for an appetizer only to be told they were out of it. No hardship, however. I had the grilled quail. If anyone knows of a restaurant in California that serves suckling pig, please let me know.
FOOD FUN – We finished the trip with dinner at the oldest restaurant in London after starting the trip at Le Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris. It’s older than the United States, in operation since 1686. I had foie gras made with goose liver instead of duck liver and was reminded that foie gras in France is pate. For a piece of seared foie gras, I had to go to England, where it’s duck liver instead of goose liver.
THE RESTAURANTS –
Le Procope, Paris – Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin hashed out portions of the U.S. Constitution while dining here. Napolean left his hat here one night when he found himself without cash to pay for his meal. He never came back to settle the tab and the hat still is on display at the restaurant. The food is traditional French, with an excellent coq au vin.
Atlas, Paris – We hit this place our first night at the height of the season for all sorts of shell fish and we had a feast of oysters, welks, raw mussels, lobster, shrimp, and crab.
La Musardiere, Giverny – Indoor and outdoor dining at a hotel of the same name. Very good place for a wide variety of sweet and savory crepes or galettes.
Bayeux, Normandy, France – Any number of good, dependable locally-owned French restaurants. We particularly enjoyed Le Pommier and Le Moulin De La Galette.
Stratford-upon-Avon – All Shakespeare and all tourists all the time. Any number of restaurants serving decent food, but nothing special. Pubs are below average. The Garrick Inn, a pub, is loaded with history. The building has been there since the 1400s. But we tried twice to get in for dinner and couldn’t because it was booked up with tour busses. Jennifer pointed out that a place that caters so heavily to tour busses probably isn’t a place we would want to eat anyway.
Sharrow Bay Country House, Lake Ullswater, Lake District, England – A top notch fixed price menu. I had a wonderful duck entré one night and a not-so-wonderful lamb entré the second night. Jennifer had the lamb the first night and the turbot the next night. Faced with a third night and the same menu items, we cancelled dinner and had high tea at 4 p.m. I would have been happy with the duck again, but Jennifer couldn’t find anything she would want. Too bad. The hotel is wonderful, with magnificent views. The restaurant overlooks the lake. A few more options on the menu would have been nice.
High Tea at the Ritz, London, England – I learned – from Jennifer – the wonders of Assam tea from India. The sandwiches were very good, the scones even better and the pastries top-notch. Very pricey and very classy, with coats and ties required for men. Certainly, there’s something ritzy about the Ritz. Worth doing if you are boycotting the Sultan of Brunei’s Dorchester Hotel high tea.
Rules, London, England – Very upscale place but the dress code just says “no shorts.” Curious: no shorts, but miniskirts are OK. Sew a crotch into the miniskirts and you would have shorts, which would not be acceptable. Anyway, as with most of London, the air conditioning was largely inadequate. We had cocktails, appetizers, entrés and decided to pass on dessert because it was so warm in the place. If we ever go back to London and it isn’t during a heat wave, I would want to dine here again and let them know ahead of time how far I was traveling for suckling pig.
Relais Christine, Paris, France – A wonderful hotel with a top-notch staff. Great location. Walk to The Louvre, Notre Dame or the Musée d’Orsay. Near Pont Neuf and underground transportation.
Les Jardins d’Helene, Giverny, France – A very nice bed & breakfast. Sandrine told us she is in the process of selling the place.
Hotel Tardif Noble Guesthouse, Bayeux, France – Couldn’t ask for a better facility, nicer room or better location in this city.
Hotel la sole Meunier, Calais, France – A dump. I got suckered in by the photo of the restaurant at street level. It looked very nice and turned out to be the site of my favorite meal of the trip. But the hotel upstairs is to be avoided. We stopped in Calais because we were taking the ferry across the channel to England the next morning. This hotel is a short taxi ride to the ferry terminal. There must be better options. Maybe the Holiday Inn a block away. But who wants to stay at a Holiday Inn in France.
Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon, England – Don’t let the name scare you off. This is one of the nicer places in this tourism-driven city and within easy walking distance to the Avon river, restaurants, shopping and Shakespeare’s home.
Royal Park Hotel, London, England – This was the third time we’ve stayed at this hotel. It will be the last for several reasons. First, it’s gotten a bit long in the tooth. Second, it’s some distance to most of what we like to do in London – theatre, shopping, restaurants. Third, moving around London has become beyond unbearable and the location of this hotel has become an issue for us.
That’s about it for a mostly good trip with a few challenges along the way. Security in London has made it more difficult than ever to get anywhere, especially when a number of underground stations are closed for upgrades to the electrical system, as they were during our visit. Twenty-minute taxi rides turned into an hour.
Theatre in London is still one of the best reasons to visit. We saw an excellent production of 42nd Street at the Royal Drury Lane Theatre near Covent Gardens. Amazing how an all British cast lost all hints of a British accent and sounded as if they just came in off the streets of New York.
Pub food in England is pretty generally over-romanticized. Maybe a ploughman’s lunch or a full fry up for breakfast are still worth it. But order beef, lamb, pork, chicken, or fish and it will be doused in some kind of sauce that masks the taste of the food. Or is it simply a matter of my having been there so often that it isn’t new and exciting any more.
So, what’s next? We’ve seen everything and everyplace in England that we might want to see. I wouldn’t mind visiting Cornwall again. But no more big road trips. With relatives there, we will return. As for France, we have all of the south left to explore – the wonderful light in Provence, the wine regions … When we do, we’ll be sure to write about it.