Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cheeeeeeeese! (Part I)

Food is one thing that does deserve some attention on my blog as this is a HUGE part of the French culture.  I could spend hours writing about all the AMAZING delicious French cuisine, however, this time around I will try to be simple and only focus on cheese (which can be a rather extensive topic on its own).

Savoy Cheese at at the Annecy Sunday Market.

I've been to France before when I was 18, but at that time, we were on very low budget and I don't even recall getting into too much cheese tasting.  So let me tell you about the REAL cheese!  I never realized what I've been deprived of for all these years that I've been eating fake crappy cheese in Canada, until I came to France.  (OK, there are some real good quality cheeses at farms in Canada but they are way too expensive!!)  The AVERAGE cheese here has a real rich taste, good texture and it is affordable.  Of course, there are hundreds of cheeses out there so I will only touch on a few of my favorites - the ones we buy often and really enjoy.  I also usually buy the cheese at the grocery store, which is not the same as fresh cheese from local markets - something yet to be explored.

Rondelé spread cheese:  very fluffy and creamy spread cheese similar to boursin.  It can come in varieties including garlic and herbs, walnut, fig, and blue cheese.  I have tasted the first two types and they are fabulous.  Great with crackers or just plain bread.  200g cost approx 1.25€.

Comté: this is our favorite semi-hard cheese and apparently has the highest production figures of all AOC French cheeses (40, 000 tonnes annually!).  It is made from unpasteurized cow's milk and aged for approx. 8-12 months.  Produced in the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France.  It is creamy yellow color, is firm but flexible and has a strong and sweet taste.  Costs around 10 to 12€/kg or more.

Bleu du Vercors - Sassenage: as local as you can get.  This is a very nice blue "mountain" cheese from cow's pasteurized milk, originally produced by monks in the Rhône-Alpes.  It has mild and nutty taste and somewhat creamy/soft texture.  (At the moment it is the only French cheese, which is made by mixing raw milk with warm milk.)  Costs around 10 to 12€/kg or more.

Bûche de Chèvre: is a rinded soft cheese (log) made of pasteurized goat's milk.  After approx. 2 months of aging, an edible crust complete with a bloomy white mold coating forms on the outside.   It is sharp and tangy near the rind and gets progressively richer and creamier toward the center.  At the very center the cheese resembles the typical fresh pasty goat cheese.  Costs around 10€/kg.

 Stay tuned for more cheese posts as I get more photos of cheeses I love.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Venetian Carnival in Annecy.

In early March we went to Annecy to see the Venetian Carnival.  I thought this would be a very interesting and cultural experience and the event actually far exceeded my expectations!

You might wonder where the connection is between Annecy and Venice.   First, Annecy is located in the Savoy region of France which used to be part of the Italian Kingdom of Sardinia and has maintained strong cultural ties with Italy over the years.  (The Italian cultural Association in Annecy hosts several Italian-themed events each year.)  Second, Annecy is twinned with Vicenza, Venetia, Italy.  Third, if you strolled the streets of both towns, one similarity that would strike you the most, are the charming canals and bridges that cross through the historic town.  Hence, Annecy has been nicknamed "the little Venice" or "the Venice of Savoie".

The 3 day carnival that takes place in Annecy is a silent "promenade" by approximately 350 exquisitely costumed participants from different countries including a large proportion of models that have come here from the Venice carnival to show off their spectacular wardrobes.  Despite the crowds of tourists as well as professional and amateur photographers, it is an experience not to be missed.  There is something fascinating about the mysterious masked faces, the silent and elegant poses, and luxurious traditional finery in the backdrop of medieval architecture.

A nice little addition to the event was the Annecy Sunday market where one can buy some nice Savoy cheese, sausage, olives and fresh pastries (among other goods).

The costumes are colorful, very intricate and stunning.  Most of the participants make their own costumes which can take anywhere between 6 months to a year - and then it's time for the next carnival!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Spring has Sprung!!

We went on our first hike this year.  Approx 12kms, 1000m elev.
Finally, the worst cold snap is over (I hope) and the temperatures are climbing back up again.  The garden is filling up with sweet smelling buds of primrose, daisies and wild violets.  When I go jogging, I'm noticing green shoots pushing their way out of the softening earth and a lizard sun basking here and there.  When we had 22C for two days, I was not complaining.  I really enjoyed the first signs of warmth and sunshine and we hung out outside all day long just lazing around on the blanket and playing "foot" with Tommy.  I helped my landlords weed out the garden and trim some rose bushes.  I love gardening, so I'm a bit hyped up about planting a few herbs in pots again.

By the way - our landlords are the sweetest couple I've ever met.  They are very nice, understanding, patient and helpful.  They invited us for a little "aperitif" one sunny afternoon at their outdoor picnic table and a few of the other extended family came to join us for some snacks, wine and good conversation.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More winter activities.

Aside from all that skiing, we enjoy the winter in other ways too.  We've done quite a bit of bobsledding with the kids and the other day we went out to see a frozen waterfall.  This waterfall (cascade d'Allieres) is only 10 mins drive from our house and I assume that it's rather rare to see it in this state, as the temperatures in the city rarely dip down as low as this year (around -15C).  Also it was quite a large tourist attraction with lots of locals taking photos and filming it!  This was my first time to see such a spectacular sight.  The huge icicles were multicolored and some water was still seeping down and freezing into snow as it fell.  A huge pile of snow was directly under the fall and all the flora that still remained intact was coated in a really nifty frozen casing.  Certainly a winter wonderland.  I've been meaning to try out ice climbing, but in order to do so I first have to take a glacier basics course with an introduction to use of crampons and axes.  Hopefully in the near future!

I've also gotten some brand new snow shoes for Christmas, but have not used them yet, so I better dust them off and take them for a walk before all the snow melts.  Another "to-do" item on my list is ski touring, but that is expensive and I feel like I need to improve on my "off-piste" skiing first.  As a start, Jakub and I did sign up for an avalanche course this winter, so we got to learn some basics and dug out some teddy bears using avalanche transcievers and probes.

The winter season is nearly over and we have one more ski trip booked on the 17th of March.  We're heading to Vaujany with Jakub's parents and our niece & nephew.  It will probably be more like spring skiing, but I don't see anything wrong with skiing in a bikini ; ).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Skiing around Grenoble.

Skiing in the Alps is something I have not experienced before in my life even though I'm a European gal.  I must say that the resorts around here are far superior than Whistler (sorry Whistlerites!) in size, price and # of pubs/restaurants on the slopes.   Grenoble is the hot spot of of all sorts of skiing including ski  touring, alpine skiing, cross country skiing and nordic skiing with three mountain ranges in the vicinity packed with resort after resort as close as 45 minutes from home.  I've bought my first pair of downhill skis this fall since it's totally affordable (60 euros for decent used skis!!) and I must say that my skiing this season has considerably improved compared to my average skiing abilities of the past.  I am nowhere near being a good skier even right now, but I feel like I am more comfortable skiing as a result of all the hours spent on the slopes this year.  So far, I've been skiing at one Austrian resort-  Sankt Johann in Tirol - and several French resorts including La Plagne (Savoy), and all those near Grenoble: Chamrousse, Lans en Vercors, Villard de Lans, le Sept Laux.

My favourite by far was La Plagne because of all the fresh powder we just had upon arrival and all the sweet off-route skiing in the alpine valleys, on the plains and in the forest.  I had my first attempt at real powder skiing with Tommy and we had a blast.  Tommy and I were trying to come up with some comparisons to the amazing snow quality and he called it "the milkshake of fun".

La Plagne ski resort
Tommy shredding some pow!

My classic cross country skis :)
Chamrousse is more of a kid geared resort, as it is small and has many easy-ish routes, so it is very nice for families.  Tommy and Anna have ski school at Chamrousse each Wednesday because on those days, regular school is closed.  While the kids have their lessons, I do some x-country skiing.  One time I went up with the kids for a day when ski school was canceled.  Tommy was skiing a bit too fast, so while I was busy waiting for Anna, he disappeared.  We waited to see if he turns up, but no luck...turns out he remembered my cell phone number which he's seen only once, he went to our car and asked a man in fluent French to call me - so we found each other again...but it cost me my ski poles which someone stole while I went to get Tommy...!!

Hoar ice crystals like diamonds.  These things tend to cause avalanches - but no fear when they're on the flat cross country skiing routes :)

Lans en Vercors is located on "our side" meaning it is in the mountain range where we live,  it's only about 45 mins from our house, and probably the cheapest in the area.  The low price is most likely due to the fact that the resort does not have any chairlifts and is solely using platter lifts (Poma lift).  It's a small resort but decent enough to get good skiing in for one day.

Villard de Lans is also located on "our side" and is a bit further than Lans en Vercors.  It is larger, a bit more expensive and more visited, nevertheless it is very nice and they have 1L of beer for 8 euros which is an awesome deal in France.

Le Sept Laux is not very junior friendly, but has lots of sweet rides for intermediate and extreme skiers.  Lots of steep faces, free riding, and a nice snowpark.  Prices are decent.