Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bilbao, A Basque Gem

                                                                      Click here or at the end of the text for more photos.

We had just about settled into our apartment in Paris when we headed off again to the airport. JR had been invited to a mathematics meeting in Bilbao and I jumped at the opportunity to tag along and visit the capital of the Basque Country in northern Spain. We joined several French mathematicians on an Air France flight that left in the dark of a Paris morning and arrived an hour and half later in the bright sunshine of Bilbao. From the airport, it's just a 15-minute bus ride to the downtown.

As the bus entered the city, we got our first look at Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry's masterpiece, which has become a symbol for the city, pays homage to Bilbao's maritime history. All curves and angles, the museum resembles an enormous ship. It's covered with titanium panels that, depending on the light, reflect shimmering silver or dazzling gold. The museum sits on the banks of the Nervion, the river that runs through Bilbao, and its "prowl" juts under the Princes of Spain Bridge. The suspension bridge first opened in 1972, but in 2007 French conceptual artist Daniel Buren redesigned it, adding a huge red sculptural arch to the utilitarian bridge. 

The Guggenheim was entirely financed by the Basque Government as part of a larger plan to turn the former industrial city into a tourist destination. We saw the results as we walked from the bus stop to our hotel.  Once home to Bilbao's thriving industrial sector, the area had become a decaying eyesore in the heart of the town. Now, it is home to not only the Guggenheim, but also a library, office and residential towers and the recently completed Iberdrola Tower, designed by Argentinian architect César Pelli. Parks, pedestrian walkways and bike paths line both sides of the river and a series of beautiful bridges connect the two sides of the town. To get to our hotel, we crossed the Zubizuri, a pedestrian bridge, whose curved configuration seemed especially  fitting for a group of mathematicians.  

The conference was due to begin in the late afternoon so at 1:30 p.m., we all headed off for lunch in Bilbao's Old Town or the Zazpikaleak as it called in Basque. We learned immediately that Basque time is quite different from French time. The first two restaurants turned us away saying it was too early for lunch. (Lunch isn't in full swing until about 3 o'clock; dinner begins at nine.) We were welcomed at the third - the classic Café Bilbao - where we sampled many Basque specialities, including cod fish, calamari, grilled mushrooms, Iberian ham and Basque Idiazabal cheese, an aged sheep cheese. The mathematicians went off to their meeting and I stayed behind to enjoy a cup of coffee. As I left, the owner called out:  "Long Live Mathematics," a sentiment I heartily endorse.

While the conference was in session, I explored the city on foot, taking in the ambiance of the old buildings with their enclosed balconies; watching the people; and listening to the beautiful sounds of Basque, which is still spoken by 25 percent of the population in the Basque territories. A pre-Indo-European language, the origins of the Basque language continue to be debated by linguists. Whatever its origins, it resembles no language I've ever heard and was completely incomprehensible to me. People, however, were friendly and even when we lacked a common language, they were warm and accommodating.

In the evening, we joined what seemed like everyone in Bilbao for pintxos at the downtown bars. The ultimate finger food, pintxos are toasted bread topped with imaginative combinations of fish, ham, mushrooms, potatoes, vegetables and cheese. There are also croquettes and fried calamari. Each bar has its specialities and the tradition is to go from one bar to the next, having a small beer, called a zurito, or a glass of wine and one or two pintxos. It's as much a social as a gastronomic event. It's not for the timid, but it's a friendly crowd, so I dragged out my high school Spanish, threw myself into the melee and bellied-up to the bar. My favorite pintxos was Iberian ham, porcini mushroom and goat cheese with a bit of red jam on top - or maybe the oyster mushroom, foie gras and grilled onions - or perhaps the salmon, anchovies and sprouts -  or possibly the fried calamari. 

Since there was so much to see and do in Bilbao (and so many pintxos to sample), JR and I decided to stay on through the weekend. According to statistics, 45 percent of the days in Bilbao are rainy and another 40 percent are cloudy.  We beat the odds with only one cloudy day and four with bright sunshine. 

On Saturday, we took the metro - a new gleaming system that is another part of Bilbao's renaissance - out  of the city in the direction the Bay of Biscay. Thirty minutes later, we were in another world of rocky cliffs and endless ocean views. We walked along a seaside path for about 10 miles and then took the metro back to Algorta. There, in the old fishing village, we sat down to a lunch of fresh octopus, marinated sardines, and mussels in a red Basque sauce, accompanied by a nice glass of Txakoli, the local white wine. We were back in Bilbao in plenty of time to rest up for our nightly pintxos feast.

The next day, we visited the Guggenheim, which is just as stunning inside as out. Their famous restaurant, Nerua, was closed for vacation, but we ate very well and very happily in the museum's Bistro. The collection of the museum is not large, but its quality is high and its presentation in the large, soaring spaces is spectacular. To take in more art, we went to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, the town's "other" museum. Its building may be less dramatic than the Guggenheim, but its collection, that includes lots of Spanish and Basque artists, is definitely first class.

On Sunday evening, tired, but happy, we said agur to Bilbao and headed back to Paris. 

For more photos, click here.
To find out more about all the things to see and do in Bilbao, click here.

Hurrengoa arte,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Galette des Rois


The decorations are still up in Paris, but the official end of the holiday season came on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. In France as in most of the western world, the feast marks the day in the Christian liturgy when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem "from the east" bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. If the three kings, as the Magi are popularly known, had come from France, they probably would have brought a Galette des Rois. 

Walk past any bakery in Paris right now and you'll see the windows heaped high with these round, golden, flaky pastries that are a French gastronomic tradition of the Feast of the Epiphany. Everyone loves them and it's a pretty good bet that from now to the end of January if you are invited anywhere for dinner, dessert will almost surely be a galette des rois.  

Inside the galette is a figurine know as a feve. The person who gets the feve will be crowned king with the festive paper crown that comes with every galette. Originally a bean was placed in the cake (feve is French for bean), but in the 1870s, porcelain figurines came into use. Now most feves are plastic, which, of course, has created a market for the old feves. There was a feve fair in Paris last weekend attended by hundreds of devoted collectors. Modern porcelain feves do still exist and come in all shapes and sizes. Famous bakeries offer  a yearly collector's series. (A couple of years ago, one enterprising baker in the Vaucluse region of France created a whole series made up of characters from the Kama Sutra.)

Each year the newspaper Le Figaro publishes a list of the best galettes in Paris. (Click here to read this year's list.) Almost everyone, however, has their favorite bakery and an opinion on what makes for a really great galette. Cooking experts agree that the galette should be a golden amber color (a pale galette means it's undercooked); should have a fine, light crust that holds its shape when it's cut; the frangipane filling should be properly balanced - one-third pastry cream to two-thirds almond cream; and lastly, the galette should be served warm. 

You can buy galetttes during the entire month of January and since many bakeries sell it by the slice, I've sampled lots of different galettes. I love the pâte feuilletée, the heavenly flaky crust, but not the almond cream filing. It reminds me too much of one of my least favorite sweets: marzipan. 

I was introduced to marzipan when I was working at my first job in Princeton New Jersey. My boss was an intelligent, urbane European man, (click here to read the post Ann Arbor Traveling), who was subject to outbursts of temper, which had often reduced his previous secretary to tears. The first time he yelled at me, instead of crying, I admonished him for his behavior, telling him in the process that I was a Trenton girl with better things to cry about than him. A remark like that could have gotten me fired. Instead, it earned me a heartfelt apology and a big box of marzipan, formed into perfect, small imitations of fruits, vegetables and flowers. I hated it at first taste, but politely told him it was great. Big mistake since I ended up working for him for several years. I've lost count of the number of boxes of marzipan he presented to me. 

So, as you can imagine, my first galette was a bit of a disappointment. Over the years, the galette des rois has grown on me, but I have never come to love it as passionately as the French. So I was really glad to see that on this year's list of best galettes is one from the Maison du Chocolat. It throws tradition to the wind and instead of frangipane, it's filled with a cream of dark chocolate from Ghana. I can't wait to try it. 

Millions of French people can't be wrong, however, so if you're not in France and would like to try a traditional frangipane galette des rois, click here for a recipe.

To see more photos, click here.

Bon appetit,

Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


In his book The Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway, writes about his return to Paris after some months away from the city: "When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter…Our own apartment was warm and cheerful." 

When we got back to Paris on New Year's morning of 2012, it was cloudy and warm. The city was as always lovely, but it looked a bit bedraggled in the aftermath of New Year's Eve. 

We welcomed in the New Year, as we have the last few years, in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Last year, the airline crew wore festive hats and at the stroke of midnight New York time, blew horns and rattled noisemakers. This year, there was just an announcement from the cockpit and some scattered applause from the passengers. 

Our plane was full, but Americans were decidedly absent. Normally, that would make for a quieter ride since the French tend to speak more softly than Americans. It a lesson that takes a while to learn, however, and the French baby a couple of rows behind us definitely had not yet mastered the skill. As she cried and screamed for five hours straight, everyone took refuge beneath their head phones. That and the fact that airline regulations now forbid "loitering" in the aisles or galleys, meant that we made no new friends on this flight. Instead, we watched "Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen's nostalgic homage to the City of Light (which has made me view Hemingway in a whole new way).  

We landed at Charles deGaulle airport in the dark of early morning and Terminal 1, which looks like a set for the 1960s animated show "The Jetsons," was wreathed in lights. As we waited for our bags to arrive, the couple with the screaming baby walked by. The child had finally and mercifully fallen asleep - too late for for us, but a godsend for the parents.  

Taxis were plentiful, but I prefer the RER train. It's an easy transfer from the terminal to the train station and, as is the custom on New Year's Eve and Day, the trains into Paris were free. It was still dark, but, nonetheless, there were small, fleeting vignettes of life to be seen from the train window. At one stop, I saw a couple obviously engaged in a heated argument. The bad end to their New Year's Eve came when, at the last minute, she pushed him away and jumped on to the train, leaving him sullenly looking at her through the window of the closed door. At another station, a heavily-tattooed, metal-bedecked young man getting off the train, gently helped an old woman get on, and then turned and went on his way. 

It was just beginning to get light when we arrived in Paris. The streets were deserted except for the sanitation trucks, manned by those perhaps under appreciated-workers, who every morning transform a littered and dirty city into a sparkling gem. Their task looked particularly arduous on this first day of the year.

As we walked along, a few more people appeared heading for the cafes and bakeries just beginning to open up and down the streets. We joined them, bought a baguette and headed for our apartment.  It was warm and cheerful.  

Another year in Paris has begun.  I can't wait to see what it brings.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor