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Friday, November 23, 2012

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)

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