June 28, 2009

Episode 2: Paris - the story of ice cream gods and the battle of macaron...

Tour Eiffel
Our next stop was the French capital, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. There is no denying that Paris is an extraordinarily beautiful city. In fact, it is so breathtakingly stunning it almost makes you angry. You will rarely stroll more than a few blocks without passing some world-famous institution or other iconic landmark, and I have never before been so enticed by the allure of apartment-style living.
With some of the more trendy arrondissements pushing well in excess of 100,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, the popularity and intensity of this glamorous city is ever apparent. Paris is a Mecca for fashionistas and the beautiful people and I can understand why it is touted as the city of romance, although those who know me well will appreciate why, that precisely for these reasons, it is also the exact opposite to my idea of falling in love. I'm not sure I could live there, but would happily visit often. After all, there is always the culinary reputation of this gorgeous city to consider...

Jardin des Tuileries, Cimetiere du Montparnasse
Awakening to the heavenly aromas of freshly-baked pastries, and collecting a still-warm croissant on our way down to Parc du Champ Mars and le Tour Eiffel was such a wonderful way to start the day. Even the simple things were exceptional, and I must say that ham and cheese baguettes in Paris are incredibly delicious. What made them so, I believe, was the butter. Dairy in Europe is different, and the flavour is something you must experience for yourself. Regardless, that such basic lunchtime fare could be so scrumptious was simply tremendous.
Our travels took us through a number of quaint street markets offering attractive fresh, organic produce which, due to a lack of kitchen, was sadly just eye candy for the Pretty Bake ladies, although we were able to satisfy our yearnings for archetypal French fare by collecting picnic supplies in the form of pate and terrine from the operatically stunning Galeries Lafayette.

Galeries Lafayette
There were three items on our "must do" gastronomical inventory, the first of which being a trip to Glacier Berthillon on the Ile St-Louis. In my opinion, ice cream for brunch is excusable when on holiday, and in retrospect it was wise to have visited early because this ice cream was SO good we had to return for a second helping later that day. The intensity of flavour and deliciousness of Berthillon ice cream is frankly indescribable, and the decision on what to try was extraordinarily difficult. I started out with a refreshing raspberry and rosewater sorbet, and Miss Rose made first contact with her soon-to-be overwhelming obsession that came in the form of the luscious and delectable salted butter caramel. We lashed out on our return visit and treated ourselves to two scoops, so while I indulged myself with sublime bitter chocolate and a rhubarb sorbet that was simply killer, Miss Rose fortified her burgeoning fixation by opting for two more scoops of salted butter caramel. It must be said that the creators of these icy treats are undeniably gods amongst men.

Glacier Berthillon – Ile St-Louis
Our second Parisian stipulation was to consume a macaron or two, and we thought it only just to compare three of the major institutions in what became the colourful battle of the macarons. A constant was selected to serve as a point of reference, and each delicious morsel was judged on appearance, texture and flavour. The contenders were…
Laduree, the most famous of all Parisian tea houses, with their pistachio, salted caramel, chocolate and blackcurrant with violet…

Laduree – Avenue des Champs-Elyseés
Fauchon's salted caramel, hazelnut praline and pistachio…

Fauchon – Place de la Madeline
And the rose, pistachio, caramel and passionfruit treats from Pierre Hermé.

Pierre Hermé – Rue de Vaugirard
The winner was unquestionably Laduree, whose macarons were perfect in form and texture, and so impeccably delicious. Pierre came in a strong second with slightly softer meringue and more butter-creamy fillings, but showed impressive presentation and I enjoyed having my palate challenged by the unpredictable combination of passionfruit and chocolate. Fauchon was left languishing well behind with flavours that failed to impress, a texture too soft and irregular shapes that just weren't quite right. I'm sure had there been no point for comparison they would have been perfectly satisfactory, but as an air of arrogance pervaded our level of expectation, there were certain high standards which had to be met.
Lastly, we returned to Pierre to fulfil the third of our Parisian desires. Pierre Hermé is rather famous for the invention of his own flavour, ispahan, and in our world at least, for the most extraordinary lemon cream tart recipe with which you should by now be quite familiar. Ispahan displays notes of raspberry and rosewater, and when wrapped in layers of buttery croissant is honestly rather delicious. As for the citron tart; it was certainly most extraordinary, but to be honest I think we stacked up quite well against the creator.

Ispahan croissant

Tart au citron
And as if this post weren't already gargantuan enough, it's now time for five of my more memorable Parisian experiences:
1. Strolling the banks of the Seine – one of the more pleasant ways to experience the aesthetic pleasures of this beautiful city.

The Seine
2. The catacombs – to pass through through these dusty underground tunnels lined with the bones of a truly incomprehensible number of Parisians was both fascinating and somewhat overwhelming.

3. Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris – located on the lovely Ile de la Cité, in spite of all its literary and historical distinction, Notre Dame is first and foremost a spectacularly stunning cathedral.

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris
4. Musee du Louvre and d'Orsay – while it houses masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, Aphrodite (Venus de Milo), the Winged Victory of Samothrace and an incredible French sculpture collection all of which are certainly an absolute privilege to see, the Louvre itself is quite a magnificent space. Musee d'Orsay houses an irresistible Impressionists collection featuring the works of Degas, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Pissaro and Van Gough to name but a few, and offers a wonderful view from its clock towers.

Musee du Louvre

Musee d'Orsay, Basilique du Sacré Coeur
5. The Eurostar – I could not think of a better way by which to end the second leg of my journey than hurtling across the French countryside at 300 kph towards the most anticipated of all my travel destinations.

Gard du Nord
And so I commend those who have made it this far through such a ridiculously long post and beg that you return soon for the final instalment, as I still have so many wonders to share.
Until then, au revoir

June 26, 2009

Episode 1: Berlin - a tale of wurst and Brandon-Burgers...

East side gallery - Berlin

We here at Team Pretty Bake were finding ourselves in need of a much deserved holiday, so promptly jetted off to the Northern hemisphere in search of sun and misadventure. To save you the misery of enduring a long-winded holiday brag, I will endeavour to focus on our favourite culinary experiences and then offer "Miss Emily's top 5" holiday highlights for each location, so that we may all retire with a vague sense of shared satisfaction (and you will detest me only a little).

Our European escapades began in the delightful city of Berlin where we were welcomed by the dear Dr Menzies who had graciously agreed to put us up in his retro-kitsch pad for the week.

The urban landscape of Berlin was intoxicating, and the eclectic array of architecture and buildings portraying a complex history were most certainly both diverse and vivacious, understandably affording the city the deserved title of zeitgeist metropolis.

Alias - Friedrichshain, Soldier boy - Potsdam

Berlin's famed trend-setting popular culture was ever apparent, and it was easy to fall in love with its industrial-chic personality.

We found ourselves most fortunately based in the fashionable borough of Friedrichshain, famed for its concentration of bars, clubs and cafes. While Berlin's coffee failed to meet my lowered expectations (even with numerous forewarnings), Simon-Dach-straße was a beautiful strip on which to spend a sunny afternoon, and kaffee laden managed to provide the least cringe-worthy of hot brown beverages on offer.

Simon-Dach-strasse - Friedrichshain

Of course, a visit to the German capital would not be complete without the consumption of some kind of wurst, and where better to partake in the wonders of a sausage-bretzel-mustard combo than in the delightful Tiergarten biergartens?

Weisswurst mit bretzel im Berlin's Tiergarten

This leafy and relaxing sausage experience was followed by a visit to Konnopke's Imbiss (one of Berlin's most famous wurst wagons) in the bohemian locality of Prenzlauer Berg for the curiously popular currywurst. I can't say it was really to my tastes, but eating wurst and chips covered excessively with ketchup and a sprinkling of curry powder from a paper tray with a teeny fork huddled on the median strip of a major road under a U-Bahn station with dozens of locals does seem to be an essential Berlin experience.

Currywurst at Konnopke's Imbiss

As a thank you to Herr Menzies for surrendering his normally peaceful abode and sharing gutes pfingsten with us (say it out aloud and you'll see why it's amusing), we prepared a meaty dedication in the form of a Team Pretty Bake burger. Some of you Melbournites may be aware of the infamy of Miss Rose's crazy burgers, and knowing Brandon's appreciation for these delicious monstrosities, we sought to reproduce a burger of epic proportions that had a distinctly German flavour. And so, I give you… the Brandon-Burger (electro-paddles at the ready, everyone):

Brandon-Burger construction

A toasted seed bun, moistened with ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, condimented with caramelised onions and pickle, and followed by a seasoned pork/beef mince patty, cheese, sausage, bacon, and egg finally topped with a token gesture of lettuce and red cabbage…

Yes I know, oh my indeed.

Our cardiovascular systems were, however, thankfully rescued by Karl and his delicious erdbeeren, some of the most strawberry-ey strawberries I have ever had the pleasure of eating.

Karl's erdbeeren

And so from the pinnacle of a quintessential Berlin culinary occasion, I will descend to offer you five of my more favourite German experiences:

1. Berlin street culture – medium-density living executed with gorgeous utilitarian precision, accommodating friendly, attractive locals with their friendly attractive dogs, and surrounded by tree-lined cobbled streets offering one of the better cycling infrastructures I've had the pleasure of witnessing.

Marx, Engels and the Fernsehturm - Alexanderplatz, Berlin wall - Potsdamer Platz

2. Architectural history – walk the streets of Berlin for a day and you will wander past historic edifices exhibiting exquisite attention to detail nestled alongside spectacular modern creations. The history offered by this majesty is both fascinating and profoundly humbling, and the opportunity to visit some haunts of one of my favourite literary debauched detectives was exceptionally pleasant.

Berliner Dom, Sony Center - Potsdamer Platz, Reichstag

3. Medizin historisches museum – one of the coolest, goriest museums I've had the pleasure of visiting; the medical history museum of Berlin was quite frankly spectacular. A floor exhibiting archaic instruments most frightening to the modern patient was followed by a comprehensive collection of intriguing pathological specimens and a fascinating forensic display exhibiting some of the atrocities of which we humans are capable. Highly engaging to the scientific mind, the level of gore may not suit everyone, but how can you go past a 60 kg mega-colon I ask?

4. Tiergarten – in Europe there is a different kind of green, the seemingly greeniest of greens, and wandering through this sprawling and peaceful common is most certainly good for the soul. Aside from the naked Germans who are somewhat confronting for us conservative visitors and perhaps a little bit much before lunch, it would be a most spectacular place in which to lose oneself of a lunchtime.

Berlin's Tiergarten

5. Kaiser Wilhelm gedächtnikirche – of all the poignant reminders of one of the darker moments in human history, this memorial church was especially moving. I don't know why, but for me the immense sadness given off by this relic was profoundly touching.

Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche

And so, as we made our way to a Paris-bound easyjet free-for-all, I couldn't help but reflect, "Ich liebe Berlin"...

June 25, 2009

Timely travels...

Musee d'Orsay - Paris
A long time ago I decided that I just couldn't do the 12th of June this year. Of all the anniversary's to endure, the day that marked the passing of a full year without Shane seemed as though it would be too much to bear. Although I suspect we should feel empowered by the knowledge that we have made it this far, it is much easier to lament that so much time has passed since life was good, and to feel a sense of ignominy that despite not wanting to, we have been able to live without him. It has been a long and overwhelming battle, each day suffering the countless moments in which our hearts shatter over all that has been lost, surrounded by an infinite emptiness which is only just beginning to feel like home. But in spite of needing to adapt to this space alone, we have still learnt to carry each other, if not forward, at least to linger stationarily so to avoid falling in to the abyss. We have kept going despite all feelings to the contrary, and while our motivation may simply have been fear of what to do should we fall, there is comfort in knowing we remain capable of basic function, however mechanical it may now be. And we have learnt to wear our masks – to hide behind when we don't want to be asked, to control what we need to release, allow ourselves to break when no one is watching, and to protect what we fear is too fragile to yet share.
My approach for avoiding this occasion was simple – to undertake something I'd never done before, with many distractions, and as far from here as humanly possible – and was easily achieved in the form of a European holiday. The delightful Miss Rose happily accompanied me on my journey through Berlin and Paris, and delivered me to London and the well organised and entertaining hands of my wonderful sister and her partner. So I am afraid you will have to endure as we momentarily transition towards a travel-focussed blog. I shall endeavour to keep the content foodie in nature, and will save photos of my travelling adventures for another occasion. I am not an overly happy snapper, as I strongly believe that for so many things it is important to experience them for yourself, and not through someone else's photos (or indeed a camera lens). If you are interested in flicking through my digital mementos, meet me for coffee sometime so you know that that, at the least, will be bearable.
Over the next short while I will post our adventures in city by city installments - a three-part series featuring a German-inspired TPB baking dedication, our comprehensive analysis of Parisian macarons, and some recommendations for certain London epicurean visitations should you ever be in the neighbourhood. So stay tuned, good luck, and let the adventures begin...