Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vacances de Décembre, part 1: Nantes et Noël (Brace yourself)

So evidently, I've got a LOT of stuff to write about but I'm gonna break it down into two posts. This one, obviously, is the rest of the time I spent in Nantes, Christmas that I passed there, and Christmas that I passed at Béhuard. This also going to be majority pictures because collectively, I've taken around 500 in the last week. So, Nantes. After the wine cave, we passed the rest of the week there, up until Christmas morning. Thursday, Guillaume and I took a train into town, about 10 minutes, much preferable to the 2.5-hour bus ride that was the other option. Because neither of know Nantes, we started off in what looked to be a promising direction only to find out it was the direct opposite of downtown. A 180° turn and 10 minutes later we were in downtown, with about 5 million other people. The downtown of Nantes is really cool, at least during Christmas, because all the store fronts and the plazas are decked out. We went through numerous "marchés de Noël" which is something very common in France. They're set up in plazas or squares, like la Place de Ralliement of Angers, and they consist of little huts that sell just about anything you can imagine. The most common are, of course, jewelry, little souvenirs and Christmas toys but there are also tons of stands for cheeses and sausages, chi-chis and other fairground food and vin chaud (hot wine, it's actually pretty good!). Guillaume and I toured those for a little while...

This is the vin chaud. I'm not sure exactly how it's done but here it looks like they just put wine in some kind of clay pot and then over a burner for a while. It's pretty popular, you see a lot of people just chilling, drinking their wine chaud, talking... you know, very Frency!

This is just one of the marché Noël that we passed through in downtown Nantes. 

Guillaume and I posing in front a fountain, me in my classic move-right-before-the-picture-is-taken-and-end-up-looking-pretty-ridiculous poses. 

Later we passed by the Château des ducs de Bretagne of Nantes. We didn't do the full tour, just kind cut across the courtyard, snapped some pictures and moved on.
The front of the castle (really not a necessary tag but I like to stay consistent!

 This a giant cathedral downtown that we passed, kinda looks like Notre Dame, I guess that's just the style of that age...? 

 This is just a little street loaded with cafés, but smack in the middle of the semi-modern houses, you've got this super-traditional French woodwork. It's a shame I didn't take a close up because in the wood on the right, under the windows, there's some really beautiful intricate carvings. 

 Haha, this was a bar that we passed. The name is Au Chien Stupide, literally translating to At Stupid Dog. No, I have no idea why it's called that or why they put in the speech bubble MIAOU (French cats?!?) but I thought it was pretty funny. 

 All over town, on walls or arches, discreetly tiled on the walls are these little illustrations. Here we've got Mario but I also saw Luigi, Pacman and a lot of other little things like that, not all of them videogame characters. I don't think this is something the city did, it seems to street-arty but I guess they don't care too much. It's funny, I actually saw the same thing in Paris... but that's another blog post.

 Le Passage Pommeraye is a little rue, but indoors and lined with tons of little shops. It being Christmas, the whole thing was covered in lights and decorations and it was packed with other last-minute-present hunters. 

This is about half-way down the passage; it opens up into a two-floor section here and as you can see, tout le monde était là! 

This I'm not really sure where it was, or whether it was on a church. Actually it might be from Paris, now that I think of it... But in any case, it's pretty nice!

Skipping forward to Saturday night, la soir de Noël chez la maman de François à Nantes, la qu'on a resté avec pour tout la semaine. So Christmas dinner here in Nantes is, I guess, always a theme and this year it was Greek. 

The table was all white and blue, in honor of the Greek flag and the colors of almost all the buildings on the islands. We had sashes that we wore, un peu bizarre, mais ça va. At every place setting was also a photo of something Greek: the beaches, the houses, the flag... Definitely going back to Greece sometime, seeing all the picture made me miss it!

Of course, they still do French stuff but for dinner we had tyropitakia (spanikopita but with cheese), a Mediterranean seafood dish and for the main course was turkey but roasted in some Greek way (don't know where they got that recipe, it doesn't sound Greek to me but it was good!). Dessert was a very French thing: 
 Les Madeleines, French butter cookies that everyone knows because they're so delicious!

 Macarones, petits gateaux, in many different flavors, always present at Christmas!

 La Bûche: this is the most traditional French thing about Noël. It's a cake with chocolate frosting, in the shape of a log, decorated with little Père Noel's, plants, loggers and saws. 

 In the middle of the bûche, there's a trail of chocolate or coffee frosting, in this case it was coffee. It's delicious, vive la bûche! Something else that I didn't take a picture of are little candies called dragées, almonds in a layer of chocolate. They're traditionally given out at weddings and baptisms but we had them here too. 

 Christmas trees are a very different thing in France. Very few people go out and get a real tree like us Mainers. In France, they're often small, artificial trees that they keep year-round. Of course, they decorate it, like us. This is the tree at the grandparents in Nantes, our's here at the house is bigger and color-themed, all white and sparkly with little glass ornaments! 

 This seems to change from house to house because at Béhuard we put the presents under the tree, but here in Nantes we put our shoes in front of the fireplace (this picture doesn't do justice to the warm coziness of the fireplace, damn flash!) and then we stack each-other's presents around the shoes. 

The next morning we drove back to Angers area and went directly to Béhuard, ours cousin's house. I don't know if I've explained this yet, probably have but for all you newcomers: Béhuard is a tiny island in the middle of the Loire about 20 minutes from Mûrs with, at maximum, 20 houses, a restaurant and a church. Our cousins live in a farmhouse that has been added to. It's two floors but each floor is essentially one giant room. On the bottom floors it consists of the kitchen, dining room and general space and on the second floor it's a living room thing but really big with a massive fireplace. Then there are bedrooms of to one side on each floor and another two rooms on the bottom that I'm pretty sure were part of a renovation. It's the house with the glass windows in the floor, I'm pretty sure I mentioned, at least, that because it's really cool!

This is on the first floor, the dining table and the bottom floor fireplace. The whole house is a mix between traditional French and modern furniture and for Christmas it was all decorated in white/silver sparkly/shiny beautiful decorations.

The dining table, set for thirteen! My family, the cousins and the grandparents- Christmas is a very family-oriented event in France, like in America also. 

Just a decoration in the corner that I thought was really cool. A wooden Christmas tree with little niches for candles. 

This was a present our family made for the sister of Laurence, my "host-aunt". It's an paper-collage angel, évidemment, with a tube thingy for flowers. Pretty bangin'!

Because the youngest of my cousins are 4 and 9 years old, and therefore still believe in Père Noël, we took a little tour around the island-village with them to give the others a chance to put the presents under the tree.  We kept pretending to see reindeers in the sky and hear "HO HO HO" and every time we said that the kids would say "Oh I saw him too, he was going to our house!" It was pretty hard to procrastinate for 25 minutes with present-crazy little cousins but I got a chance to snap some pictures of the village. 

We went to the old church and they had the crèche de Noël set up. It's actually a pretty big thing in France, le crèche: families set it up under the tree, churches set them up, there are even city crèches!

This church that we went to is really old and has some unique features, like these faces carved into the bottoms of the benches. They express just about every kind of emotion you could think of but unfortunately I didn't get a very good picture. 

Some of the walls are carved directly out of the stone face, as you can see below. 

It's half a church, half giant mound of rock, so more or less bad-ass old church. 

In the outer wall of the church, there's this niche from 1698, with Mother mary and baby Jesus: I wouldn't have guessed it's those two from the picture but that's what I was told. But yeah, it's old!

I think I might have already shown this but Béhuard is notorious for flooding and here they've got marks for how high the water came, the most being 6.78 meters (0 meters being the level of the Loire normally) in  1910. There's also a bunch of pictures dating back to 1984 with various scenes of people boating through the streets and stuff like that.

This is a collection of really bizarre glass beakers that one would think of for science experiments, but these are for wine! It's a collection of Xavier's, the husband of Laurence's sister.

This is a plate of foie gras, made by Laurence's mother (her specialty, along with la bûche), chilling outside...

... next to plates of huitres (oysters). Oysters here are pretty common for big meals. People here either love them or hate them. Me, I don't like them at all. Cold, slimy, gummy, fishy nastiness you slurp out of a shell, along with some sand? No thanks!

Interjections: I noted some of the dishes we had, but not all of them so I'll tell you what I remember. We had around of little puff pastry things with ham, cheese, pesto, chorizo and other toppings for an amuse-bouche (pre-meal snack, for the purpose of waking up you taste buds) with champagne. For the entrées (remember, in France, those are appetizers not the main course) we had a carpaccio de St. Jacques à la truffle (yes, truffle mushrooms, it was really good!), followed by the foie gras et baguette, then a dish of langoustine (a kind of mini-lobster) with a mousse, cauliflower and caviar. That last one was a little weird, not my favorite but it doesn't matter because after was the plat principaux (main course): ballotin de caille au foie gras (quail in a layer of dough, with some kind of foie gras mixture somewhere there) et purée de panais (a vegetable like a white carrot but with a different taste). It was absolutely amazing! Apparently, the sister of Laurence has a friend who is a chef at a top restaurant in Angers and he gave her the recipes. 

Of course the cheese plate between le plat principaux et le dessert. I tried a little of everything, yes even that blue moldy one on the left. Since I got here, I've been more and more adventurous with the cheeses I've been offered and now I'll eat just about anything. I love French cheese!!!!!

This was the bûche again, (x2 to accomodate everyone) from Laurence's mother. On top of this one were little sugar mushrooms and Père Noël's: it was really good!

And then of course, the omni-present box of macarones!
There's going to a second post going up shortly with my trip to Paris, but for now I'll stop because Gabe just got here so we're gonna go hang. 
À plus!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

La Cave de Vin à Nantes

Itinerary update: it turns out we were actually going to Nantes today, and I found out yesterday. We're going to be here until Saturday night, Christmas Eve, which we're going to pass here. Then Sunday morning, Christmas day, we're going to head back to Mûrs, or rather, Béhuard (the little island of my cousins, which I took some pictures of, il faut que je vous montre!) for Christmas lunch and presents with the little kids. Then we'll go back to our house, for just one night, and the next day, to Paris! We'll be sleeping over there, I think, two nights and then home for New Year's. So, yeah that's pretty awesome!
Anyway, today we woke up early to get a ride to Nantes, the 5th biggest city in France. We're not actually in Nantes, just in the suburbs but we'll go into town later. Today, after lunch, we went to the movies and I finally saw les Intouchables: it was amazing and I'm not even sure if it exists in America, it was definitely a French movie but it was really good! Then after, we went to a wine cave. It belongs to a couple, who are both in their 70's but they still pump out Muscadets! They have about 10 hectares, if I understood correctly, of vineyards just out back. The cave that I visited was all stone and clay walls. It was probably at least 1 degree colder in there than outside and the air was, for lack of another way to put it, rich with the scent of wines.

 There were stacks of giant barrels, souvenirs of the old days when they stored wine in them. They don't do that today, at least not at this winery.

 On the walls were old tools and photos used before the modernisation of the wine biz.

 A very unflattering and blurry picture of me next to a mini wine barrel. This is one is something you'd find in a household, or rather a castle, since it's got a spout for filling ip glasses directly. The bigger ones just had a giant cork wedged in the top.

 There were literally thousands of bottles lining the walls!

 There were also a lot of trophies and plaques from contests they must have won.

 These are the giant barrels, about my height and just for decoration now.

 We walked in and there were the proprietors as well as two other men who worked there sitting around the table, having a glass and talking. We were invited to join them and since the last bottle was empty, they just grabbed one of the racks, uncorked it and served it just like that. I had a glass and it's probably the only wine that I've ever tasted and liked. It was really cool and fresh-tasting and not bitter like a lot of other wines I've had. Probably because it was from this year so it hasn't had time to age... The table, and the little stools, the cork opener and the lamp were all made from this really beautiful wood, probably special wood that they used to use for the barrels to give a certain flavor.

 That's the chandelier previously mentioned.

 On the wall was a list of prizes dating back to the early 1900's, which were unfortunately mounted higher up on the wall and I couldn't get a good picture of them. But they're all written in this awesome handscript and framed.

 After we got a mini-tour of the equipment they actually use today. This is a kind of manhole that leads down to a little room, pictured below, that they fill with wine from the latest harvest.

 The wine stays in these underground, stone-walled rooms for I-don't-know-how-long. From there it gets taken out for bottling.

 These are giant tanks, lining the walls, also for the storage of wine.

 Those are the hatches that lead down to the rooms for the wine. There must have been at least 8 set into the floor. In this picture, the one on the left is empty but on the right it's filled with wine. The owner opened it for us and it was literally an underground room full of wine. Pretty cool.

 This was just a picture of the start of the vineyards, they stretch on for hectares after! Obviously, now they're all dead and chopped down but there are other vineyards out here still going before the end of the season. This area is definitely a wine country region; on the way up we passed countless fields of grapes!

 This is not actually the final product, I'm not sure what stage this is.

 This is the final product and actually my very own bottle. Our grandmother here in Nantes bought 80 bottles of wine for Christmas so they gave her a bottle free. I got one too, a little souvenir which I'll bring home at the end of the year.

That's the label but unfortunately you can't see the little picture of the vineyards. It's cool though.
So that's what I did my first day in Nantes. I might not be able to post again for a while because I'll be pretty busy but don't worry I'll take plenty of pictures of Paris at Christmas and hopefully this time my camera won't die on me after 5 minutes!
À bientôt!