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Friday, November 23, 2012

GoSparky!: Albi, France II (4th in a series)

GoSparky!: Albi, France II (4th in a series): SPARKY’S BLOG 11-23-2012 Albi, France II 4 castles of the Cathar Chateaux of Lastours Shortly thereafter our thoughts turn t...

Albi, France II (4th in a series)


Albi, France II

4 castles of the Cathar Chateaux of Lastours
Shortly thereafter our thoughts turn to food and we’re off to lunch at the restaurant Puits du tresor at the foot of the 4 castles of the Cathar Chateaux of Lastours.  The Cathar are a very, very religious sect of folks that went to extremes to protect their way of living and thinking which is somewhat akin to the Amish of the United States but not quite.

A view from the restaurant Puits d tresor at the foot of the 4 castles

A lobster bisque as a starter

Mashed potatoes and steak (French-style!)
The Cathar built fortresses to keep the govt. forces out and had philosophies rooted in harsh ideals resembling that of upstart militia groups dotted around America but not quite.  The Cathar felt that they were the purists of the time and they probably were.  Unspoiled, pure and of sound mind, body and spirit the Cathar people were slowly persecuted and eventually cornered into these 4 castles where they eventually died from starvation and in some cases murdered by their own to keep from being taken by govt. forces which would, of course, taint their legacy.  Just a crazy-cool story.

A wonderful glace to finish the meal

We were once again spoiled by France as she gave us more culinary delights starting off with lobster bisque that walked a tightrope of salty, fishy balance and danced on your tongue instead of assaulting your taste buds.  The bread that always shows up magically unannounced is hearty and robust without need for butter to disguise its flavor giving credence to France’s skill as master Boulanger’s (bread makers). 

The 4 castles of Cathar Chateaux of Lastours

These ruins are amazing

Built in a location purposely difficult to reach

I was quite content with just the early courses but was very satisfied with the resulting fodder and cuisine that ensued.  Having mashed potatoes and steak covered with mushroom gravy is about as American as one can get but here in Lastours, France the flavor profile smacked of deep burgundy wine, pepper, thyme and buttery excellence.  I’ve never had meat and potatoes like this and will try to duplicate this when I get back home….yummy!

A special dinner
On to Albi, France and dinner at the L’Epicurean restaurant run by Swedish chef Rikard.  The reason why this is a special dinner is because we are to meet chef Mark Buhlman who was on a similar trip last year and was so enamored with France and Albi as well as this particular restaurant that he solicited chef Rikard to come back for an entire year as an apprentice.  Mark was a student just like us and he hailed from the Ft. Wayne campus so he was no stranger to half of our group.  It was a thrill to hear him speak to the group about his transformation from young American kid to a French savvy man who has become a full-fledged chef in the land that invented the profession. 

Mark Buhlman on the right and Chef Rikard on the left

Chef Rikard, Chef Michel Bouit and myself having a great champagne!

I was quite taken with his story and the vacant slot that he was about to create that I quickly jumped at the opportunity to fill his shoes and my enthusiasm was met with acceptance from all involved.  I’m extremely excited to be coming back to Albi, France for a year to be tutored in the fine art of French culinary techniques and methods from a man who is as accomplished as chef Rikard.  

Maybe I'll learn how to ......

..... make food like this someday?

These types of opportunities are very, very few and far in between.  I’m very lucky to have a situation where I’m unencumbered by the traditional strings and attachments normally associated with a man of my age.  Now, on the other hand – I do wish to have a wife and family someday as well as the American dream of having that white-picket fenced in yard and home but due to the economic downturn of the last few years…..all that has been taken away from me granting me this wonderful and fortuitous endeavor.  You gotta look on the bright side right?

Okay, now onto the dinner.  After we heard how Mark’s experience has transformed him we sat down to an elegant and “other-worldly” meal!  Our first course was a white truffle (yes, truffles!) salad with a base of baby greens (tasted so fresh!) then gruyere cheese and finally topped with the white delicacies themselves - Truly an inspired dish that made my mouth water for more.

Just outside of L'Epicurean restaurant
Next we would be introduced to sliced scallops on top of fresh pea’s sautéed in a cream/garlic sauce that was foamed just before serving.  This stuff was STUPID good!!  It’s stupid how good this course was.  It was without a doubt my favorite offering thus far.  I’m good, I’m done I don’t need anything else as I’m fully sated.  But of course there would be more and I’m not going to keep ranting on and on about the food much more as I’m starting to salivate and yearn for more of it….suffice it to say that we finished off with a type of cheesy/sugary torte with pineapple ravioli.  I don’t know how he came up with pineapple ravioli but it was a stroke of genius and something that I will never forget.  The torte was light, airy and esthetically beautiful all the while being absolutely delicious!

The incident
After the dinner, we all had a bit of time on our hands as we started our evening early so most of the group decided to have a couple of cocktails and beers at a pub a couple of doors down.  This is where the initial, serious bonding between all three schools took place.  This may have been my favorite moment of the trip where we became more of familial group instead of separate factions like before.  Yes it helped that the booze was flowing a bit but I noticed that most students were being serious about practicing proper decorum as we were ambassadors of our country and also school.  Besides, we all signed a contract outlining the behavior expected of us and overdoing the alcohol intake was firmly stated among the rhetoric as an activity NOT TO DO!

Aaron sleeping on the bus with Karen

 The time came to think about heading back to our hotel rooms for a good night’s sleep as we have a full schedule of activities ahead of us the next day.  Just as we passed by L’Epicurean Restaurant; we noticed that chef Rikard and Mark Buhlman were entertaining some of the other students having sort of an after-party if you will.  We were summoned inside for additional drinks and charcuterie enticements.  Chef Rikard was slicing off Iberico Ham (Spanish ham that costs $900 a pound) and feeding it to us as if there was no consequence.  Talk about hospitality!  I've never been served like a king as this. On this night we were all treated like royalty and in this moment, I almost cried.  I’m not used to such generosity and may never receive such treatment again so I savored it and relished in this flash of giving for it will all be over before we know it and soon will be a cherished memory.

Aaron forcing a kiss ....  perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of things to come?

Unfortunately, while we were bonding and engaging in light-hearted frivolity one of us was walking down a path of darkness and ugliness.  Aaron my roommate is a very serious diabetic and isn't used to nights of liquor and heightened partying.  He more or less drank so much that he became embalmed and his thoughts turned to that of a mischievous child with the emphasis on “child”.  The majority of the group took the high road and sauntered off to sleep but Aaron took part in a repulsive and sickening act.  Turns out that he was goaded into taking off his clothes (yes, completely naked) and jumping into a nearby fountain forsaking all rational thought and disrespecting himself, the group, Ivy Tech and stomping all over his role in representing good upstanding Americans traveling abroad in a foreign land.

Just because you are dared or double-dared into doing a sordid and nauseating act of stupidity doesn't mean you actually do it!  I was horrified and sickened by the news and even more so by the photographic evidence supplied by one of the students unlucky enough to witness such disgusting behavior.  There are laws against this in the United States and there are laws against this in France.  This begs the question: “Why did he do this?”  After all, Aaron is a professor of law back home in Indiana.  He should have known better!

I saw the look on the faces of Chef Bricker and Michel Bouit as they gazed unapprovingly at the pictures proving his guilt - very sad and completely inexcusable.  Aaron was so trashed that he was physically unable to accompany the group the next day on our outing of the market exploration, cathedral touring and boating the Tarn River supplying us with visual grandeur that we will never forget. 

Albi, France

On the River Tarn

One of the students asked Michel Bouit if a person ever missed an activity until this day and Michel sadly replied “no, never” in a very dejected tone of voice.  I became instantly sad for him and Aaron was immediately given the mantel of pariah.  Later in the trip he would cement this designation even further but that’s later.

The outdoor market in Albi, France

Amazing produce sold on the street

Imagine a supermarket just outside your door

Taking a breather at the market

A beautiful medieval city indeed!

Cruising the River Tarn

The River Tarn

A view of the Cathedral overlooking the River Tarn

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

GoSparky!: Carcassonne/Albi (3rd in a series)

GoSparky!: Carcassonne/Albi (3rd in a series): Sparky's Blog 11-14-2012 The Canal du Midi The Picnic Next up is a picnic on the Canal du Midi which is a 240 km long ca...

Carcassonne/Albi (3rd in a series)

Sparky's Blog

The Canal du Midi

The Picnic
Next up is a picnic on the Canal du Midi which is a 240 km long canal that connects a short cut around Spain from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea (as you should know the French and Spanish didn’t get along too well for a very long time).  We arrived at a clearing along-side the canal that was complete with more white linen and a banquet-style long table set with real crystal, flowers and china-ware.  I have to keep pinching myself to see if this is really happening to me.  What the hell did I do to deserve this?  I feel as if I’m a king of some far-away land and that I’m traveling my realm surveying all that is mine.  To be catered to at this level of sophistication is a bit daunting but supremely enjoyable.

Elegance on the Canal du Midi

A quiet table as we stuffed our faces!

The lunch was prepared by a local company that specializes in grilled treats and on this day we were offered skewers of fish, pork and fowl that were seasoned perfectly.  Every other accompaniment served to balance our meal all the while being subservient to wonderful wines of the region.  This meal by the canal was probably the most light-hearted and carefree one that we’ll experience as there are no pretentious waiters or stuffy atmospheres of an interior joint that might frown upon burping.  Yes, this setting will be one of my favorite as I’m quite fond of the great outdoors….quite fond indeed!

Quite the starter!

Surf and Turf on skewers.

 Dining al-fresco is one thing but dining in the outdoors resplendent with a symphony of bird songs, cricket chirps, babbling water, rustling leaves from above as the wind gently caresses the trees on its way to the Mediterranean Sea will put one in a state of ideal harmony.  That is what I felt on this day – this hour – with these people as like-minded as I; truly enjoying a fantastical moment in time!

Our dinner was to be a very special party because we would be schooled in our preparation this evening by a master chef in addition to his specialty being Cassoulet.  We are dining at Chateau de Saint-Martin with Master Chef Rodrigues (the Pope of Cassoulet).  He has been making and perfecting this dish for over 19 years and has brought his son into the business as well.

Master Chef Rodrigues

Chef Rodrigues passing the torch to his son

 The recipe is peasant-based in nature as the country-men would use what they found often at arm’s length.  Most ingredients like garlic, onions, leeks and beans could be harvested in one’s own personal garden - the sausage and chicken could be purchased cheap or absconded from a local farm while the herbs could be taken from the country-side.  In addition, the wine can be either made by them or again, stolen from a merchant.  It’s more romantic for me to fantasize about a minor criminal element being associated with this recipe….I’m just saying.

We were regaled with stories from Chef’s Rodriquez and Bouit on the art of making Cassoulet.  It takes at least 3 hours to bake in a special earthen pot and when done properly tastes like the land of its origin.  Cassoulet is very hearty (various meats) and bold (garlic, onions) and herbaceous (thyme, bouquet garni) and quite filling!  I was very satisfied due to the many levels of flavor and textures aside from the fact that it was expertly made by the pope himself!  Wonderful stuff, really good.

But that wasn’t it – oh no there was more, much more.  We would be entertained by the president of Cassoulet with wine and song, after all – we are in France and it wouldn't be neighborly to just feed their guests when you can give them an entire evening of traditional amusement welcoming us into their country as one of their own.  This would be a night not soon forgotten. 

A man in a red robe appeared from behind a mysterious door (okay, it was the kitchen door) bellowing dulcet tones of baritone that tickled my ears as they were expertly delivered.  This man can sing!  We encouraged him to engage in an encore and much to our delight he sang additional songs associated with the land, region and food.  I wasn't expecting such entertainment and our Cassoulet encounter became something much, much more.

The President of the Cassoulet historic society

Soon enough, the singing was over and another robed man appeared with parcels of paper; looks like we’re all about to become the entertainment as we would receive a diploma of accomplishment for our Cassoulet instruction and later culinary pleasure.  There was a catch, however, because we would have to repeat a historic Occitan (medieval language) chant that its meaning is wrapped in mystery.  AKOL BYMIE!  Again and again we heard this chant repeated by each member of our traveling team.  And one by one we would receive our coveted diploma.  Later in our trip we would by happen-stance ask casual French folks what AKOL BYMIE meant and every single time we were greeted with snickers and giggling but never a proper definition.  It is my belief that our mysterious phrase is somewhat akin to the “Snipe-hunt” that young adolescents are sent on as a harmless joke by those in-the-know.

A tour .....

..... and lecture of preparation made this a wonderful night!

(May 18th)
Albi (giant gouffre of Cabrespine / natural cave)
Today we depart for Albi, France and as we leave the great castle behind us growing every more faint with the distance catching glimpses through the misty rain; I can’t help but harken back on the first two days of this fantastic journey and wonder what could possibly top this? 

Along the way we will visit an enormous cave that is a giant gouffre of Cabrespine (natural cave).  The drive here is a bit more interesting as the cave is nestled in the foot hills of the Pyrenees Mountains.  In the distance I can see the terrain become more like a relief map than actual road.  Before we know it, we are slowly snaking our way back and forth on switch-back roads ascending our way to the top to find our visual prize awaiting us.

Felt like I was either on or IN the moon

Stalagmites and Stalactites were beautiful

It’s starting to rain in earnest as we disembark the bus and the fog floats lazily through the hills giving way to a spooky nature of an area that needs no extra help in this regard.  There is something about large hills and mountains that evoke a mystic nature as lore and legend springs forth among the locals while engaged in conversation, there is always going to be a figure that lurks just beyond reality but firmly planted within the community as a proper legend.

We enter the doors of the store to purchase tickets and we’re bombarded by the trinkets and souvenirs that litter every road-side attraction just like in the states.  While walking into the doors that house the great spectacle I begin to smell the odoriferous makings of something wet, dark and dead (there are over 30,000 bats surviving in the great gouffre among other species).

This is the "nature" that I appreciate and love so much!

Just outside the great cave on a rainy afternoon.

As we come upon the great expanse that slowly becomes evident with each careful step – my jaw drops with astonishment to behold the spectacle that lies before us.  There is a huge gorge INSIDE the mountain unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  The artificial lighting provided helps to illuminate the varying different species of rock and development that have taken place over millions of years.  The colors are varied and spectacular and the differing textures, seemingly, never end.

The sheer enormity of this place makes you feel minuscule

Eerily discomforting!
I’m humbled by the enormity of this scene and also can’t help but understand that something much bigger than myself is represented here inside this mountain - for inside this bedrock of limestone, granite, quartz and other various minerals resides a countless number of stories that carve out the history of mankind in this region.  The species and sub-species that make up this eco-system gave birth to that of which supported and sustained the land, air and water to provide us with the start of the fabric that weaves our story.  Yeah, more cool stuff to think about that makes me feel very small.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

GoSparky!: Carcassonne, France (2nd in a series)

GoSparky!: Carcassonne, France (2nd in a series): SPARKY’S BLOG 11-7-2012 CARCASSONNE, FRANCE Carcassonne – After we collected our bags in Toulouse we begin our drive to Carc...

Carcassonne, France (2nd in a series)



After we collected our bags in Toulouse we begin our drive to Carcassonne and our stay at the Best Western Le Donjon located in the heart of the “old” city – inside the ancient castle located there.  We met our driver of legendary status Andre; he is a large and robust looking man with a lean physique and Michel mentioned to me that he was Special Forces in the French army.  This pleases me as I’m now feeling much more secure (I didn’t really have many concerns anyway).  Michel assures us that he is the “Very Best of the Best” and that we would all be in very good hands.

Chef Michel and Andre having lunch together

Andre doing what he does best!
 After our arrival we are secured a tour with a guide that possesses an unusually dry sense of humor.  He thinks that scolding his patrons and customers is funny and of course his efforts are lost in translation (I've been dying to coin that phrase!) as we Americans often find ourselves wanting to be the center of attention.

This guy was NOT funny at all!
 I was very interested to find that there were more than just one or two campaigns during the period of the Crusades.  Carcassonne played a part during this period as the stronghold was an outpost for refuge as well as attack – fantastic stuff.  I’m fascinated with the lore of romantic battle (although most would suggest that there is nothing but destruction when regarding battle).

We also found out that the clergy at the time whether it is a bishop, friar or the like, carried an enormous weight of influence during these times.  The religious sects (primarily Catholicism) struggled with separating themselves between church and state as all factions at this time wanted power, fame and fortune and the church was caught in the middle but by their own devices.  Corruption and deceit were the order of the day and there was, literally, no one you could trust.

The castle of Carcassonne, France
Medieval streets

An Erie feeling at night

Le Parc
After our tour we all got gussied up for a fantastic dinner at a local restaurant, but this place was unlike any other we’d encounter while in France.  We would nosh on offerings by Chef/Proprietor Franck Putelat of Le Parc restaurant.  Chef Putelat is a friend and Silver Bocuse d’Or medalist in 2003.  Just in case anyone didn’t know what the Bocuse D’or is; it’s the world’s premier cooking competition and is held in Lyon, France (a stop on our itinerary).  We would be eating the food of a guy who (at one time) was the second best chef in the world!  Needless-to-say, I was really looking forward to this occasion as this would be my first such experience.

Exquisite food at Le Parc

Chef's Bouit and Franck Putelat

Le Parc's young staff of chefs.
Evidence of Chef Putelat's participation in the  Bocuse d'Or

Michel Bouit for those of you who don’t know is a classically trained chef from Lyon, France himself and he made sure we were all dressed accordingly that would be appropriate for a two-starred Michelin establishment.  I made sure my tie and suit were pressed expressly for this occasion by inquiring for an iron and board at the front desk of our hotel.  The accommodations in France are vastly different from those in the states (more on that later).  I wanted to show respect where respect is due and I knew we would have occasion to wear a suit and made sure to bring a smart and dashing choice to properly represent myself.

It was wonderful seeing us all assemble in the lobby of our hotel looking very dapper and beautiful; it was our first night and we already broke out the Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.  I like dressing up as it usually means a very special occasion is upon us.  Everything on this trip will be anticipatory and coming up on the façade of Le Parc was just that…..for culinary students we are always sizing up anything and everything regarding an experience as I was checking out the colors and shape of the building on the inside my mind wandered as to what kind of phenomenal treats lie inside.

We weren't disappointed and our first course was a smoked salmon salad with micro-greens sitting atop with pungently flavorful but delicate vinaigrette.  The second course was an assortment of canapés aligned in a row on a rectangular dish accentuating a linear presentation.  There was a mini sandwich of biscuit and foie gras and a mussels offering with cream and cheese presented on the half shell as well as black squid ink macaroons stuffed with the flesh of the squid itself.  Terrific stuff!

Our third course was an oil poached cod sitting atop white asparagus bathing in hollandaise sauce with flavor that exploded in your mouth!  Our fowl course consisted of pigeon and wine-braised root vegetables accented with a vegetable coulis that artfully adorned the plate.  A meal fit for a king indeed!  I truly enjoyed this food as we lingered for hours eating and talking and drinking in the way a dinner of such importance is meant to be.

Afterward we were invited into the kitchen as a prize for selecting culinary as a profession.  What a revelation, I expected to see a myriad of equipment strewn about like that of a chef of such great acclaim.  Much to my dismay, there was a very minimalist and organized kitchen reminiscent of those we see in culinary magazines.  One thing I did notice is that there were chef’s coats encased in frames affixed at the top of walls near the ceiling making a homage to Chef Putelat’s travels and accomplishments much like the Dallas Cowboy’s circle of fame in their football stadium.  This remarkable detail really resonated with me just because I thought this to be a very cool feature of his kitchen.

Simple presentation but exploding w/ flavor

Truffles anyone?

Chef Michel is in his element (The kitchen!)

The fields of France
Today we depart for the col du Bouc and the panoramic view of the valley of l’Aude and Corbieres to look at the vegetation at this time of year.  I must admit that I was a bit skeptical about this stop on our itinerary because walking around in a field was something that I could do back home.  What I found waiting for us in our lobby that morning was a vision of loveliness named Muriel and she would be our guide that day – I’m now more than happy to traipse around a field just as long as she’s involved with this activity.  Aside from Muriel’s presence; this “field-trip” would prove to be one of the most culinary-eccentric events we would do all trip long.  Muriel would walk us by wild asparagus and rosemary and fennel.  She would bend over and pluck plants from Mother Earth and feed them to us like a mother hen would feed her chicks.  We all were in amazement at how these magical herbs tasted filling our mouths with powerful flavor unlike any we’d ever tasted before.

We walked by and sampled more items such as thyme, lavender and more rosemary.  This experience was simply astonishing as I would harken back to the TV shows I watched as a kid remembering the “Galloping Gourmet” describe how ingredients just taste better in Europe or their native countries.  He was right and I will never forget this field of culinary dreams.

Juvet Winery
Our next adventure on this day is to meet Frederic Juvet, Vintner and Wine expert and his wife.  Frederic was exactly what I thought a French vintner should look like.  His frame was moderately tall but portly from all the wonderful meals he had eaten while consuming mass quantities of wine, at least this is what I am telling myself in my head.  He has semi-long silver hair bucking the trend of society’s expectation of what a man should do with his coif.  His pudgy cheeks bounced on his face as he spoke expressing his passion for making wine and cultivating the land.  I've not experienced such enthusiasm for a profession in a long time since I decided to re-invent myself as a chef two years ago.

The epitome of a man loving his job - Frederic Juvet

 He wore an open red shirt that caught the wind with romantic whimsy; he sported pants that had been cut off just a few inches below the knee that resembled culots that a woman would wear suggesting he is very secure in his masculinity but happens to fancy a style befitting his own personal preference.  He had on a very tight t-shirt underneath his open one accentuating his girth of many years feasting and luxuriating in the wine he produces.  He is a mysterious looking gent but elegant man even though he appears to have just come out of the vineyards to greet us.  I’m captivated by him due to his profession, demeanor and character because he encapsulates the wine-making legend in one stout package.

His knowledge of wine, grapes, agriculture and methodology was, seemingly, unsurpassed because everyone was enthralled with every word that escaped his mouth.  I wanted to reach out and grab them and keep these words for myself so that I may benefit from them later or perhaps hold onto them as a souvenir.

One of the many offerings we had on this day

I was spellbound by his knowledge

I had to embrace this man as he embodies everything I treasure

Ryan enjoying life to the fullest!

Juvet vineyards

We tasted 8 wines on this day: a chenin blanc from the Loir Valley (divine), a Riesling (sweet but with character), a burgundy (made from pinot noir grapes – nice), a corbiener made from 80% sirah grapes and 20% granache grapes (a bit spicy and enticing),  a Crozes Hermitage (syrupy with high alcohol content),  a 100% sirah (silky and spicy), a Bordeaux made from 70% cabernet sauvignon grapes and 30% merlot grapes (wonderful and full bodied) and finally a proper champagne from the Benoit Lahaye winery (elegant and delightful).

A very happy crowd indeed!

 While seated at our white linen tables; I reached down to touch the fabric of the tablecloth listening to the laughter of the group echoing in my ears hoping…..wishing for this moment to never end.      

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)