Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Go To Provence!

Do it! Go to Provence. It was even better than I expected! Here's what I loved.
  1. Hiking the Calanques
  2. Visiting Pont Du Gard
  3. Hiking Cap Canaille
  4. Taking the Train to Maison Auzet bakery
  5. Touring the Clos Sainte Magdaleine winery
  6. Eating at Fou de Fafa
  7. Relaxing on the Pont D’Avignon
  8. Tasting wines around Avignon: Tavel Rosé and Chateauneuf-du-Pape
  9. Dining on the beach at the Grand Large restaurant
  10. Eating candied fruit

1. Calanques

Is that really a trail? Will I survive? I was looking at a windy path of scree - jagged shards of limestone - leading down to the promise of a hidden beach far below. As long as I didn't lose my footing and slide down the entire slope on my backside.

I was on a five-hour round-trip hike to see the three closest Calanques. And have a picnic lunch on the beach, complete with rosé wine and a desert pastry. For the sake of the wine I would have to make it to the bottom.

The Calanques are basically French fjords. They were carved by glaciers. They’re majestic and amazing.

You can also see them by boat. I went on a two-hour ride to all nine of them. I took about 400 photos. Maybe I'll have them sorted in five years.

2. Pont Du Gard

We arrived at Pont Du Gard in the late afternoon. It's amazing engineering. But the sun was on the wrong side. The backlight was ruining my photos!

Then I found a trailhead that looked like it might lead to the other side. It was more like a stone staircase than a trail. After climbing 106 steps - but who's counting - I reached a view of the sand-brown structure turned golden by the dropping sun. I just sat up there for several minutes soaking in the view and marveling at the beauty of it all.

Located near Avignon, this huge bridge was built with an aqueduct on top to get water to Nimes. One story says Nimes was outgrowing its own water supply. Another story is that the Romans just wanted to show off their engineering chops. All I know is it looks amazing.

3. Cap Canaille

This 1300 foot cliff pretty much photo-bombed every picture we took. Photo of the port - there's Cap Canaille. Photo of the vineyard - there's Cap Canaille. Photo of a glass of rosé - there's Cap Canaille.  (The Eiffel Tower did the same thing last year when we were in Paris.)

The best part? There's a trail along the top. Just a three-hour round-trip hike from the hotel. I took about 500 photos of the turquoise water below. Add them to the list to sort through.

4. Maison Auzet Bakery

See that chocolate?! We took a half-hour train ride just to visit this bakery. And it was worth it!

That and a ten-minute walk yielded a shrine of deliciousness, calories, and tooth decay. Croissants, chocolate-and-cream pastries, baked strawberry meringue the size of a football, and frosted cake on a stick.

Did you hear me? Cake! On a Stick!

5. Clos Sainte Magdaleine Winery

It’s a tough life running a winery right on the shore of the mediterranean ocean. They sure make it look easy. Justine explained the entire wine-making process from start to finish, first in beautiful French, then with charmingly accented English. I’ll take two bottles.

Look! Cap Canaille in the background!

6. Fou de Fafa

"...and I recommend Fou de Fafa..." 

What? That's the name of a hilarious episode of Flight of The Conchords where they sing in French. 

"Yes, they named the restaurant after the video." 

Sold! We were going. And we weren't disappointed. The food was delicious. We had Kirs as aperitifs, a paté amuse-bouche, Calamari appetizer, duck and grilled salmon for the main course. And a bottle of wine.

7. Pont D'Avignon

This bridge was more useful before it got washed out back in the 1700s. Now it’s good for admiring the scenery and enjoying a cool breeze. I had fun looking for different photo angles.

Oh, and it has its own song

8. Tavel and Chateauneuf-du-Pape

The best known appellation of rosé in provence is Tavel. I sampled my first Tavel at a winery called Le Mordorée. The guide was very friendly. Not at all snobby. 

Next we went to the Brotte winery to taste their Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They sent us on a self-guided tour about the Côtes du Rhône region and the wine-making process. We convinced our guide to let us taste the “Vieux Marc” - it's a spirit distilled from the grape skins left over from the wine-making process. 

That's when a winery guide came over and gave us the full-snob experience. “Wine tasting is not wine drinking. You are not there to have fun and laugh and joke. Tasting is a serious business. You are there to learn about the qualities of the wine, to experience all its attributes, to become one with the wine. Later there will be time for wine drinking, but not now.” OK - he has a point.

9. Le Grand Large

I thought this restaurant was named "The Big Big". That's silly. Turns out it means "The Open Seas". That makes more sense. (Because it's right on the beach.)

The view was great as the sun was setting behind the calanques. I liked my baked chèvre salad. The duck-kebab was so-so. You definitely pay for the view more than anything else.

10. Délices ("Delights")

I found all kinds of goodies in Provence. I loved the candied fruit. It’s like they took whole strawberries, clementines, and pears and force-fed them sugar until they became candy. Peel, seeds, and all. They also have chocolate-covered almonds which deserve 5 michelin stars of their own.

Here’s what I ate on the trip: Croque Monsieur (grilled cheese with ham), Crêpes, Mussels with Fries, Salade Niçoise, brie with salami and olive tapenade on french bread, anchovy pizza, oysters and clams on the half shell, snails, gelato, almond and honey pastry edged in chocolate. Not to mention the Pastis, Kir Royal, Cassis white wine, Tavel rose, and belgian beer.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rabbits Foot

My mouth is burning. Pulsing like red coals in a fire. But I’m not in agony. I’m not panicking. The endorphins have kicked in. They’re soothing without being neutralizing. I can feel both the fire and the relief in a delightful extended balance - just like I like it. Oh, and the honey stout in front of me is contributing some delicious caramel notes.

I’m at the Rabbit’s Foot Meadery. It’s a Friday evening, and I’m introducing some co-workers to  mead produced down the street from our office. It’s been a good Friday. This is my second visit in the same day. Why two visits? A better question is why not two visit? I guess I’m just turning into their biggest promoter. I took a friend to the meadery after lunch. When I got back, some co-workers asked how my day was going. Soon I was back again introducing more folks to the mead.

Mead is probably the first alcoholic beverage that the human race ever made. And it all starts with honey. If you want wine, feed grape sugar to some yeast. They’ll go into a diabetic frenzy that results in that lovely brain-changing chemical called alcohol. If you want beer, grind up some grains and feed those carbs to the yeast. For mead, feed ‘em honey.

One problem - yeast can’t eat honey. It’s a preservative. I was told you can preserve an apple by submerging it in honey. I’m dying to try honey apple slices! Yum! Honey pear slices? Even better!!

But if you add some water, those yeast get a foothold. And then you can make all kinds of good stuff. Most of it sweeter than…honey. Honey wine. No grapes, just fermented honey. Honey cider. The hard kind. Infuse some fruit puree to get your flavor of choice. Honey beer. Let those yeasties munch on both honey and grains.

What does the capsaicin burn have to do with mead? Well…there was a food truck, you see. “Chutney Mary’s.” Fusion cuisine, because that’s what all food trucks do in the bay area. Asian Chicken Tacos, Chicken Wings, and Shredded Pork sliders on Hawaiian buns. With choice of hot sauce. On a scale of 1-10, we picked the 15. It was made from Habaneros and Ghost Peppers. Actually it was just a 9.5, but Californians are soft. (Well, you are.) Still, hot enough to get my attention.

And then it all came together. The bartender pulled out a special mead for us to taste. Golden and translucent. With a giant red ghost pepper floating in it. An exquisite balance of heat and sweet honey.

So why is it called the Rabbit’s Foot? The owner was home-brewing mead. After several failed attempts, he finally got a batch that looked like it was working out. Golden clear. The next day it was cloudy and discolored. For no good reason. Well. His daughter had dropped in her lucky Rabbit’s Foot to help him succeed. Yeah, ruined the batch with contaminants and coloring. But he decided that if he ever opened a meadery, he would call it the Rabbit’s Foot. And so he did.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2013 Wailing, Dancing, Love

"You turned my wailing into dancing;...
Lord my God, I will praise you forever." Ps 30: 11-12

What a year 2013 turned out to be! It certainly shook my foundation at the start. I was betrayed and rejected in my deepest relationship. But throughout the year incredible joy came my way. I got closer to God. My friends and family loved on me. I met new groups of wonderful people and had amazing adventures. It was actually a great year!

My top experiences from 2013:

Cambria trip with my church Neighborhood group in February
Paris vacation with my Mom in May
Reno bus trip with line-dancers in October
My brother’s 4-day visit in November
Christmas party with line-dance group in December

The year started with my wife telling me she didn’t want to be married anymore. She didn’t miss me while I was away (for a week). She loved every minute without me. Actually, she never wanted to get married in the first place. (So why did she?) She just got caught up in the whole marriage thing. For the last 12 years she was just deceiving both of us. 

I never saw it coming. OK, a few days earlier something didn’t seem right. I sent her a note reminding her I would do anything, change anything, try anything. I was committed to her and our marriage. Her response? “Oh good, you’re just as unhappy and want out too.” (What?)

The next few weeks I woke up sick to my stomach. Every day. I really wanted to just drink until I was buzzed enough to drown the pain and shock. OK, that’s a bad idea and I knew it. Instead I went running. Physical activity got rid of the shakes. Cool air and the beauty of the river calmed my mind. Giving God an earful reminded me of His love. And yeah, I sobbed, bawled, and wailed - especially looking through 15 years of photos.

My only community in California was my wife and her family and friends. That was all gone. I had to build new community, and fast. Enter meetup.com. It’s a database of social groups. I jumped in and attended a running group, a French language group, and a board-game group (the latter meets at the Yahoo! cafeteria, which I think is cool. Nerdy, but cool.). I saw new-release movies with a movie-goer group and spoke Spanish with a Spanish-speaker group. I sampled delicious restaurants and hiked beautiful trails with a foodies and hikers group.

My family and friends in Texas were a huge support. I flew to Texas a lot. I took my buddy’s kids to try sushi for the first time. The 10 year-old boy and I explored a cave in Cedar Park. I joined in his birthday celebration: an all-nighter of movies, video games, pizza, and root beer. (OK, I crashed out at 2.) We went for runs and we walked the dogs and we talked about how school was going and what they wanted to do when they grow up.

My Austin friends encouraged me to find a church community. I visited Garden City Church and was amazed right away. I had three friends before the service started. A few days later I was in a neighborhood group. Soon I was on that retreat to Cambria. I helped people move. I helped a church buddy reach his goal of trying standup comedy on stage. Within six months, I was a member, I was baptized, and I was serving on the sound set-up team and the greeting team. I belonged.

My church group constantly encouraged me as I worked through my emotions and had a few meetings with Marianne. The most powerful advice they gave me was around forgiveness. “Christians are the most forgiven people, so we can be the most forgiving.” 

Divorce wasn’t the only change. Besides that there was:
Moving to Mountain View
Finding a new church home 
Trying new social groups 
Buying a car
Getting a new team at work and a new organization to support
Getting a new manager and a new VP

The other group of wonderful people God led me to are the local “dancemonsters.” Remember meetup? There was a listing for a Monday Night line dancing group that meets at a Mexican restaurant in downtown San Jose. I hesitated. Who goes out on Monday Night? Is downtown San Jose safe? How do you dance at a restaurant? (Fun folks in their 20s through 60s. Yes. They have a dance floor, duh.) It took eHarmony to convince me to go.

Wait, what? Yeah, I joined eHarmony. Don’t judge. It’s the internet age. After a week of it I realized…I had to meet more people in person. On-line dating is like on-line job searches. You read through a lot of job/relationship postings. You write a resume/profile. You fill out applications/questionnaires. Then you wait to be contacted for an interview/date. I never got a good job online, why would dating be any different? So I committed to go to the next line dancing night. On a Monday. At a Mexican restaurant. Best. Decision. Ever. 

I had no idea I was walking into such an amazing group of friendly people. Or that they were going to welcome me in so warmly. After the lesson they kept encouraging me to get on the dance floor and try the other line dances (the easy ones, anyway).  That led to a Reno dancing trip and Friday nights at the Saddle Rack country dance club. (And some Saturday nights.)

2013 is done. I’m single again after 15 years. That sucks. I miss sharing experiences with someone special. But I’m thankful for God’s blessings. I love my friends from dancing, church, work and Austin. Thank you for everything you did for me this year! 

(I'm excited about 2014. I’m taking vacations to Argentina and France and I’m working on Spanish and West Coast Swing.)