Travel Fears

We are days away from embarking on the trip of a lifetime.  It’s time to assess my major fears about this trip and my plans to deal with them.

Crossing the Drake Passage, reputed to be some of the roughest open water on the planet. Ugh. I don’t do boats. But I am willing to do this one because I want to see Antarctica. So I am fully loaded with drugs to handle the seasickness of life on board and, I hope, the roughest the seas can throw at me. (‘Cause otherwise, I’ll be throwing it right back at them…)

Next, having enough to read. This was a major quandary. But I recently learned that our ship contains the largest floating library in Antarctica and has both non-fiction, which I assumed, and fiction, which I wasn’t sure about. So now I am fairly confident that the four books I have packed will be enough for the off-ship travel portion of our almost-month-long trip.


Will all the books in the library published by Penguin?


Taking these two biggies off the table leaves me with just one final concern: Will there be enough chocolate on board?

Photo Credit: Flickr Photo by Antartica Bound used under CC License

Our Lady of Chocolate

Notre Dame in chocolateParis’ Montmartre neighborhood, as I am no doubt not the first person to discover, is a wonderful place to wander. Full of cafes and shops of all kinds, it seems to me to be quintessential Paris, an area where people actually live rather than one that tourists occupy. I loved peering into the shops, both essential and quirky, that lined the road up to Sacré-Cœur.

There were even enough patisseries and chocolate shops to keep even the most afflicted chocoholic content. (Those, of course, fall into the “essential” category.) Chocolatier Maison Georges Larnicol fell into the quirky category as well. Along with its many treats and specialities, it featured exquisite chocolate sculptures, including a replica of Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

Winter Ephemera

IMG_4334Winter brings with it many things that pass with the season. Here in Basel, we enjoy Zermatt Bacara, a fabulous fondue restaurant that makes its appearance at the beginning of November and stays until the end of March. Those in the know request reservations at the beginning of October because, yes, the fondue is that good.

Each year the entire restaurant is assembled at the beginning of the season and disassembled at the end of the season. The first time we ate there, we looked around in disbelief. How could something so solid looking, so cozy and so warm, be temporary? But it is, down to the ball chains dangling from the the lamps and the deer skulls and old-time photos on the walls. While I have not witnessed it, I have no doubt the building is assembled and disassembled with absolute Swiss efficiency and fits very neatly into a container or two.

The menu seems to stay the same from year to year, so maybe they even pack those away to use again too!

Further afield, we checked out, or into, another temporary winter phenomenon this year, the Ice Hotel.

IMG_3149 Located in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, the Ice Hotel is constructed each year from the River Thorn. The ice, 5000 tons of it, is harvested in deep winter, stored through the summer and shaped and sculpted in the late fall. The ice is used for ornament, sculptural details and yes, the beds. The hotel’s Art Suites are, literally, works of art and change each year. Hundreds of artists from around the world submit designs for them; just a handful are chosen. The hotel also features more basic rooms of three standard designs, all magical in their own way. The hotel’s superstructure is created of “snice”, a combination of super cold snow and ice blasted over a temporary frame. Inside, it appears white. The ice, on the other hand is crystal clear, and shimmers. If you look closely, in some of the large blocks you can find the occasional bubble or leaf caught within.

The Ice Hotel offers both cold and warm rooms but the cold ones are the ones to see and ooh and ah over. Our night there was definitely a cool experience, in both senses of the word.

This year the hotel is open until 12 April. After that, it is left to melt and return from whence it came, the River Thorne.

If you go
Zermatt Bacara
The Ice Hotel

Gorgeous Gingerbread

Switzerland is home to many fine confectionary products. One crunchy—as opposed to creamy—treat comes from Kambly, a cookie company. Tucked in the small village of Trubschachen, the factory, like many in Switzerland, offers tours and programs for the public. We recently ventured there to make gingerbread houses.

IMG_3861 When we arrived, the workspace was laid out with large trays and bowls of tools. Each cookie sheet has a laminated template covered by a sheet of baking paper. There were five in our group and two other families, for a total of twelve. Our head cookie chef was was Patricia Zimmerman, who demonstrated for us. We were each brought a sheet of rolled gingerbread. Using a series of heavy duty metal templates, we cut out base, roof, gables, a door and a chimney. There was a bit of extra dough so I also cut out some extra doodad decoration using the various shaped cookie cutters. There was also enough dough to sample! Nicely spiced and flavourful!

IMG_3863We placed the pieces on the tray, in their correct places of course, removed the template and put them in the oven. (I would love to have an oven like that in my kitchen!)

While they baked, we worked on marzipan ornaments, Patricia demonstrating. Her hands fluidly produced perfectly round balls that were quickly assembled into a witch’s body and shoes. A fourth ball became her head, then she quickly acquired a crooked nose, complete with wart, and eyes. Needless to say, when it was our turn, we were a bit less skilled but nonetheless we all created something respectable. We branched out a bit beyond witches, with teddy bear (complete with bow tie), snowman, penguin, musicians, and an elf.

Patricia had obviously done this a few hundred times before. She would simply pluck, pluck at the marzipan to take a ball in each hand and Voila! produce a pair of eyeballs, then pluck, pluck again, fingers working while talking all the while and Voila!, a pair of perflectly matched pupils to pop on the eyes.

IMG_6191Armed with piping bags of delicious icing (we checked!), we commenced assembly. Piping icing onto the edges of the gables and section of roof took mere minutes; we then added the other roof piece. It created quite a stable structure – a credit no doubt to its Swiss design.  We then set the house on the base and were ready to embellish.

Patricia demonstrated varoius techniques with icing, how to mount decoration etc and then let us at it. We had a selection of cake deco items—stars, snowflakes, knobby balls, Smarties to incorporate into the finished look.When finished, we each received a special clear plastic carrier for our houses (They’d obviously done this before!)

Our creative juices depleted, we explored the factory’s retail area. The shelves were stocked with large bags of cookies—samples right alongside so you could be extra sure that what you were buying was as delicious as it looked.


Happy bakers

Our ace gingerbread team

I May Need to Move to Milan…

There is some serious chocolate in Milan. It’s been a while since I spent any amount of time in Italy—my last visit was well before my chocolate addiction reached its current level of intensity—so for all I know the rest of Italy would be amenable as well, but for now, Milan would be pretty high on my list of places to live. For now, I need to be content knowing it’s just a four-hour train ride away!

chocolate shop in MilanThere are chocolate shops everywhere, it seems like there’s one on every block. The shops have absolutely gorgeous window displays, each one more tantalizing than the next.

From the little (relatively speaking anyway) that I tasted, it’s all good. And it’s a good thing I only sampled a bit. With all those shops, if we’d stopped in each one, we woudn’t have had time to do anything else. We did of course visit the Duomo, and afterwards we visited, as a friend suggested, the cafe at the top of la Rinascente, Milan’s equivalent of New York’s Bloomingdales or Macy’s. The chocolate there was absolutley over the top – I had never before seen chocolate shoes!

But the best is the hot chocolate (cioccolata calda) which is smooth and rich and very much like drinking warm pudding. There’re only two places I know of in Basel that serve it that way, and only caffe HABITU had it in Hong Kong, so it’s not often I can pop into any cafe and order a hot chocolate and get this thick, delicious creamy treat. For that alone, Milan is well worth visiting, even if I can’t live there.


Say Cheese!

It would be hard to spend time in Switzerland and not explore the cheese on offer. The country is proud of its dairy traditions and makes them accessible to all. From the dairy case at the smallest grocery shop to mountain top restaurants, cheese, wonderful cheese, is everywhere.

The town of Gruyères is not far from Basel and though we’ve eaten plenty of Gruyère, we had not yet been there. With a recent visitor in tow, we corrected that oversight!

The town is best known for two things: Château de Gruyère, perched on the hill within the town itself, and La Maison du Gruyère, just outside the town in the valley. At La Maison du Gruyère is a show dairy, where you can learn all about the classic Swiss cheese (which is NOT the Swiss Cheese found in American deli counters) and see how it’s made.

maturing wheels of cheeseWe purchased our tickets and were promptly rewarded with, you guessed it, cheese! Each sample pack  contained portions of cheese aged six months, eight months and ten months. There is quite a difference to the taste and texture of each. At three months, it’s smooth and slightly creamy; by ten months, the cheese has developed a distinct crystalline texture and sharper flavor.

Inside, there is a display that tells the story of how Gruyère cheese is made and why it tastes the way it does. More impressive, however, was the video above the factory floor that showed the cheese being made. The volume of milk processed each day is staggering: The cheese dairy is equipped with four vats with a capacity of 4’800 litres and produces up to 48 wheels of cheese each day, each weighing approximatley 35 kilograms.

The final stop was the aging room, which can accommodate up to 7000 wheels of cheese. It was hard to decide which was more impressive: the row upon row of cheese stored there, or the cheese-rotating robot, which removed each wheel, flipped it, moved it into a new spot and went on to the next.

It was all good.


More on cheese:

Emmi Guide to Traditional Swiss Cheese – a quick summary of widely available cheeses from Switzerland

Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture – food writer Sue Style describers 30 or so (of more than 400) cheeses produced in Switzerland

Safari-Inspired Soup

For Christmas a few years ago, we spent the holiday in Tanzania, including a week on safari in the Serengeti. It was everything we hoped it would be and the days passed quickly as we thrilled with the sight of a leopard on the hunt, startled at the sound of a lioness calling to her cubs, and chuckled at the antics of the warthogs.

mama lionessOur trip left lasting impressions, as any good trip does. Takeaways from Tanzania included a bit of insight, a bit of knowledge and a new culinary inspiration:  seeing animals in a zoo would never be the same; the name for a group of mongoose is a business; and creamy soup is a wonderful thing.

The soup started with our first meal at Ngorgoro Lodge. It was a carrot soup, smooth, creamy, slightly spiced and simply delicious. I no longer remember what kind of soup we had on the second night, but it doesn’t matter, it was delicious as well and the hook was set. When we moved to Dunia camp, there was more soup – tomato I think – and I resolved to add to my soup repertoire.

I’d been making soup for years (I make a mean roasted red pepper soup), but these soups inspired me to explore more and particularly hunt for a carrot soup that would equal what we had on our trip. I found a carrot soup recipe that I now use often – it’s perfect on a chilly Sunday evening. It took a while but I’ve also tweaked a squash soup to my liking.

The carrot soup recipe is this Creamy Carrot Soup from All Recipes. I use almost twice as much ginger as it calls for, though, to be sure the flavor comes through. The pumpkin soup I’ve been making since fall is loosely based on a recipe I found but I’ve tweaked it enough to call my own. It’s delicious and fragrant and validated my use of butter and sage as the “sauce” for the seasonal pumpkin ravioli that arrives in our local Coop in the fall.

Roasted Pumpkin Soup

Based on a recipe from Chef Kerry Simon

2 T butter
1 onion
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled and diced
2 cups roasted pumpkin, in large chunks
1 T  sage leaves
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup cream
salt and freshly ground pepper

pumpkin soup

Melt butter and saute onion, carrot, apple, pumpkin and sage until tender, about 20 minutes. Puree with an immersion blender. (This is when the wonderful sage aroma starts to rise!) Add the stock and simmer 15 minutes, then stir in the cream and heat until warmed through. Do not boil. Season to taste with pepper and, if you wish, salt.

En Guete!