Monday, June 29, 2009

Languedoc - Menu for a Friday Evening at Soustres

Cooking as collaboration is one of the joys of food and eating. Collaborating with a friend of almost thirty years is the zenith of that experience. Anne and I chose Friday dinner to be our pièce de résistance, a culmination of several days together in the kitchen at her ancestral home, 'Soustres' in the Languedoc. We went about this in the French fashion, in that, Friday was market day in Béziers, the closest large city to Anne's home, so we went there Friday morning to see what was available, and fresh. Once we were there we devised the menu; Anne was gracious enough to allow me to take the lead. She helped in choosing the right ingredients from the vendors she new well. When one shops in a French market it's all about the conversation, a sort of negotiation with the merchant takes place. At the butcher's we scanned the case of meats, poultry, and charcuterie to see what looked good. I noticed pork ribs, chicken and fresh sausage and immediately thought of a mixed grill. Anne quickly agreed as the nice weather would allow for outdoor cooking. Anne spoke with the butcher and worked out what we wanted, and how much of each item; he cut the ribs to our specifications, chopped up the chicken and gave us a nice coil of sausage. That got us started. Our menu for the evening quickly came together.

Menu for a Friday Evening at Soustres

Radishes with Sweet Butter & Salt
Mixed Grill of Spare Ribs, Chicken and Sausage*
Printanier of Fava Beans, Artichokes & Peas*
Une Salade Verte
Les Fromages

*Recipes for both of these dishes will follow in the next blog post.

I knew I wanted to have radishes with sweet butter and salt as a first course as I used to eat them when I lived in France as young man. It is such a simple dish yet so pleasing. There's something about the peppery crunch of the radish with the sweet butter and salt that wakes the taste buds up. And to prepare it could not be easier: remove the greens leaving a bit of the stem on, wash the radishes thoroughly and let drain, or pat dry. To eat them one takes a radish puts a bit of butter on it, salts it and into the mouth it goes. The market was full of gorgeous spring produce. We stopped at a produce stand to buy the radishes, and we also grabbed garlic and spring onions; I wanted to make something with the beautiful fava beans and artichokes I had already seen, and Anne came up with the idea of a printanier of spring vegetables. She added fresh peas to the mix.

Back at the house everyone chipped in to help prepare the meal. First I marinated the ribs and chicken in olive oil, lemon, garlic and fresh herbs while Anne began the printanier. Anne's father and Robert started the grill using les souches, discarded grape vine trunks. They add a unique flavor to the food. After the meat was marinating, I helped Anne with the printanier prep work. Anne and I along with Beth, a fellow house guest, sat outside in the garden and peeled fava beans and shelled peas. We were well on our way to a stellar springtime meal on a Friday night in the Languedoc.

Mr. de Ravel starts the fire using les souches, or grape vine trunks.

Anne and fellow house guest, Beth Higbee, shell fava beans in the garden of 'Soustres.'

French radishes, fresh from the market, different looking than American radishes. Anne has a recipe for a cold soup using the radishes' green tops. You can find it here: A Frugal Meal.

The raw meat before marinating.

The spare ribs, or coustillous in French, in a marinade of olive olive oil, balsamic vinegar, white wine, garlic, green and white onions, soy sauce, harissa paste and several fresh herbs.

The chicken in a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and fresh herbs.

Onions, spring onions and garlic for both the printanier, and the meat and chicken marinades.

The raw fava beans and peas ready to be prepped for the printanier.

The cooked and peeled fava beans ready for the printanier.

Shelled peas ready for the printanier.

Fresh artichokes from the Béziers market. Anne removed the leaves and used the hearts only for the printanier.

The artichoke hearts soaking in water with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown just before the final cooking.

The artichoke hearts for the printanier cooking away.

The spare ribs and the chicken done and ready for the table.

The finished spare ribs, or coustillous, resting before the meal.

The cooked sausage ready to eat.

The finished Prinatanier of Fava Beans, Artichokes and Peas. This was the hit of the meal. A recipe for this will follow in the next blog post.

Anne's ancestral home, 'Soustres.'

Bon appétit!

Check Out: Gobs! Have you ever heard of a Gob? It's a cross between a cookie and a cake, layered in frosting yet still airy - something akin to a cookie sandwich. They're sold at grocery store check out lines all over Pennsylvania. Well my enterprising friend Steven, a native Pennsylvanian, has improved on the originals and brought them to the streets of San Francisco. Read about them here Gobba Gobba Hey Blog and find out where you can get them here:

My Status: home, blogging, cooking, missing Paris, eating, blogging, missing France, dreaming of Barcelona... (yes, still!)

Upcoming Posts: France and Spain: more detailed blogs about our food and travel adventures in France and Spain. The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Languedoc - Narbonne

And to the market we shall go! Part of my excitement at visiting my friend, Anne, in the Languedoc was doing 'foodie' type things with her. Going to the local markets, food purveyors, and restaurants, as well as cooking with her. One of our most fun - and unusual - days was the day she took us to Narbonne. It was Saturday, the day before we were to leave, and Anne wanted to cook a simple seafood meal for our last dinner together. One of her favorite fishmongers is located in Les Halles, the main market in Narbonne. So off we set to Narbonne. We did a quick walking tour of the city to get a feel for it. It's now a city of 50,000 people, and is about twelve miles from the Mediterranean so it's a good city for seafood. It was originally founded as a Roman port, and was also the first Roman colony outside of Italy; in the town square you can still see a portion of the Roman road that connected Italy to Spain.

After our quick tour of the city center, we walked over to the market. It's one of those daily markets inside a large building with individual stalls selling all manner of food items: locally grown vegetables, meats, charcuterie, fish, cheese, pastries as well as a few locally produced wines. We stopped at a produce stand, one of Anne's favorites in the area, where we purchased asparagus, tomato tapenade, and one of my favorite new tastes: pickled garlic. This is very popular in the South of France; they take peeled whole garlic cloves and pickle them in vinegar, sugar and spices. The pickling process removes the bite from the garlic making it sweet but still leaves it crunchy like a pickle. They're delicious. Our next stop was the fishmonger where Anne bought bulots (sea snails), marinated fresh anchovies, and fresh sardines and mackerel. Our shopping was complete; we had our menu: bulots avec aïoli, marinated fresh anchovies, tomato tapenade, pickled garlic, grilled sardines and mackerel, and grilled asparagus.

By this time it was late morning and I was jonesing for my late morning café crème; a habit I started in Paris and took with me to Spain. A café crème (cafe con leche in Spain) in late morning, and often one in the late afternoon - just so I could keep going into the evening. We were busy travelers; we had a lot to see and do. And I just loved that there were so many places to stop - and to sit - to have a coffee, and that not once was I served coffee in a paper container. Always in a ceramic cup with a saucer and a metal spoon. It might have been more about the ceremony than needing caffeine. But I digress. There were several places to either eat, or get a coffee, or have a drink in the market. We found one and the four of us sat down at the counter. This was a tiny place. It was called Chez Bebelle. We sat on chairs that looked into the small space that was the kitchen. There were a few tables off to the side. That was it.

And this is when the fun began. It was just before noon and the staff was setting up for lunch. We ordered our drinks and watched as they began the lunch service. All the seats at the counter quickly filled up. I realized it was run by a family. I assumed they were the 'Bebelles'. But, as I found out by doing a little Internet sleuthing, they are the Belzons, a brother and sister. His name is Gilles, hers is Johanna. The little girl who looked to be around ten or eleven years old working alongside them remains nameless. Possibly either Gilles or Johanna's daughter? Robert still talks about the fact that the little girl was working at such a young age and that she was pouring wine. Not something we would see in the U.S. As we sat there I heard someone shout something but I didn't know who it was, or what they said. A few moments later, Gilles grabbed a megaphone, aimed it across the market, and spoke into it: "Michel, deux bavettes, s'il vous plait!" He was telling someone he wanted two cuts of beef, please.

I looked to see who he was addressing and before I could register who it was a white package came flying through the air and Gilles caught it. I suddenly understood. The restaurant was too small to store all of the meat, and other items it would need so they didn't. There was no reason to. When someone ordered something off his meat centric menu he simply had the butcher across the aisle put it together and send it over. We all watched joyfully as this little restaurant went about its business. Gilles placed several more orders using the megaphone as we sat there. Each time the item was delivered wrapped in white butcher paper either by hand or through the air. We had other plans for lunch but when I do go back to Narbonne I'll be going by the market to have lunch at Chez Bebelle.

We finished our outing by having lunch at Les Cusiniers Cavistes situated very near the market. The restaurant is one that Anne works with when she conducts her cooking classes and food tours of the Languedoc through her company Saveur Languedoc. The food at Les Cuisiniers was fresh, local and superbly prepared. An added feature is the artisanal bread they serve that is baked in a wood fire oven that has been operating for hundreds of years. The day ended with another amazing meal chez Anne that evening. To start we had les bulots, the marinated sardines, the tomatoe tapenade, and the pickled garlic; for the second course Anne grilled the sardines, mackerel and asparagus over les souches, uprooted grapevine trunks, giving the fish and asparagus a rich smoky flavor that was unique as well as perfect. A fitting last meal. Sadly, our time in the Languedoc was coming to an end.

Photos above, taken by Charles Thompson and Robert Guerrero, from top to bottom: the entrance to the Narbonne market; the Roman road in Narbonne; fish selections at the Narbonne market; spice selections at the Narbonne market; Chez Bebelle in the Narbonne market; Gilles placing an order with the butcher; sardines and mackerel grilling over les souches.

Check Out: my friend Jo's new site: Chef's Who Tweet, follow your favorite chef; add to her list of chefs who Twitter.

My Status: home, blogging, cooking, missing Paris, eating, blogging, missing France, dreaming of Barcelona...

Upcoming Posts: France and Spain: more detailed blogs about our food and travel adventures in France and Spain. The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'.

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Friday, June 19, 2009


Paris is always about food.  At least it is for me.  It's probably other things to other people but food and eating are my end all, be all Paris activities.  And in a city like Paris food and the chance to eat are everywhere, all the time: cafes, restaurants, food shops, open air markets, crêpe stands, even department stores.  I actually wasn't going to write about Paris as I didn't think we had done enough food-related activities on our recent trip to France and Spain but then I realized we had.  Our short time there actually revolved around food and eating; happily so.

Our plane arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport on a Monday morning at 7:30 a.m.  By the time we took the RER to Gare du Nord and a taxi to our hotel in the Marais it was a little after 9:00 a.m.  We walked into the lobby, exhausted and unkempt from a long flight from Los Angeles that included a plane change in Boston, to find that our room wasn't ready, and might not be until 2:00 p.m.  We could leave our luggage and return later.  We had no choice.  We grabbed our cameras and our day bags, and stepped out into the street.  I told Robert I needed a good cup of coffee and something to eat.  On the corner down from the hotel were two cafes.  We sat down at an outside table on a little square in those most comfortable wicker-style French cafe chairs.  We ordered two petit déjueners with café crèmes.  I couldn't have been happier.  The fact that the first thing I was eating in France was a crusty baguette, sweet butter and jam was perfection.  There's nothing like a fresh morning baguette slathered with sweet French butter.  We sat, we ate, we drank our coffees and watched the Paris morning happen around us.  I could have sat there all day.

Except there were a few errands I wanted to run, one in particular: since I began writing my blog in January I have been exploring other blogs and bloggers.  One of my favorite blogs is David Lebovitz Living The Sweet Life In Paris.  He's an American pastry chef, was a longtime employee at Chez Panisse, who moved to Paris a few years back and writes about his Parisian experinces on his blog.  He'd announced that his most recent book: 'The Sweet Life In Paris' had been published and was for sale at W.H. Smith, an English-language bookstore in Paris.  With this subheading: 'Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - And Perplexing - City' I had to read it.  I thought it would be fun to read while in France.  W.H. Smith is located at 248, rue de Rivoli.  The rue de Rivoli is quite a long street that runs through several arrondissements but we could pick it up nearby so we set off after our petit déjeuner.  It ended up being a wonderful walk that took us right by several of Paris' grandest monuments such as the Hotel de Ville, Paris' city hall; the Louvre; the Tuileries Gardens; the Jeu de Paume museum; and the stunning Place de la Concorde.  It was like a walking tour of the best monuments in Paris; a perfect re-introduction to Paris.  I bought my book and proceeded to read and enjoy it throughout the trip.  On the walk back we peeked into the very chic Place Vendôme.  I was in love with Paris all over again.

Our first evening we met our friends Jay and Neill at their Marais apartment before going off to dinner.  I wanted to bring some kind of host gift.  As we walked back to the hotel we saw a number of pastry and candy shops selling beautifully colored macaroons.  Come to find out there is some kind of macaroon craze going on in Paris right now -- they are everywhere.  But they are very chic and fun-looking;different, strange flavors like green tea, peanut butter, passion fruit, and mango; Technicolor colors like bright pink, lime green, and lemon yellow.  Not at all what we are used to tasting and seeing in a macaroon.  We finally stopped in a little shop that sold macaroons only.  We selected a few and voila a host gift.  Jay and Neill own a wonderful little apartment just down the street from our hotel which they rent out when they are not in Paris.  We met them there, had drinks and hors d'ouevres, and then walked through the Marais to dinner at Aux Trois Petits Cochons.  The prix fixe menu changes daily depending on what's available at the open air market right next door; the food was well-prepared and quite good.  The restaurant and service charmimg.  It was an enjoyable evening.

The next day, I still had one remaining errand to run: to find a hostess gift for my friend, Anne, who we stayed with in the Languedoc.  So as we were out and about in Paris seeing a photography exhibit at the Bibliothèque Nationale in the morning, and visiting Père Lachaise cemetery in the afternoon, I kept my eyes open for something wonderful.  I also learned that Robert had never been to the Galeries Lafayette - Paris' top department store that looks like Bloomingdale's on acid.  I love the GL.  So in our quest for Anne's gift I took him there.  Once inside, we needed sustenance, I needed caffeine. Thankfully much in France is still old-fashioned.  We checked the directory and sure enough the entire top floor was a cafe and restaurant.  We made a beeline.  Unlike the horrible food courts that all U.S. malls have, this was the real deal. Like an old-fashioned cafeteria with real dishes and silverware.  Grab a tray, see what was on offer, and take what you want.  All the food looked good, was fresh and decently made.  We both had a cafe crème and a pastry.  We sat at a window seat and looked down on the Paris  Opera house.  The gold leaf on the statuary shining in the late-evening sunshine.  Happiness.  After, when Robert had seen more of the main store, we found Anne's gift across the street in the GL housewares store.  The GL also has an unbelievable food hall to rival any other food emporium of it's kind.  I'd never seen it before but the selection is immense and all of it extremely high quality.  It was fun to wander through looking at all the delicacies and drool.

Our final night in Paris was spent with my good friend Marie-Claude van Steenbrugghe.  I met Marie-Claude when she owned a goat cheese farm in the Charente, in west central France.  We met in San Francisco in the early 80s when I asked Marie-Claude if she would teach me how to make goat cheese.  I never actually got to learn but I did spend time with her at her farm in France, we toured goat cheese cooperatives, and met other goat cheese makers; she took me to a goat cheese competition and judging.  It was fascinating.  Several years later, at my behest, she brought her family to New York and ultimately helped develop the goat cheese that would become Coach Farm Goat Cheese made on a farm in Upstate New York.  We have remained good friends over the years.  Robert and I joined her, her husband and her daughter and her daughter's husband for dinner at her Paris apartment where we ate Japanese.  It was wonderful to see her again and get caught up with each other.  It was another very special food-filled evening in Paris.

Our two days in Paris were fast and furious but worth every rushed moment.  We did and saw a lot, I got my periodic refill of the  City of Light.  A city I treasure and always will.  I hope we are able to go back soon.

Photos above, taken by Charles Thompson and Robert Guerrero, from top to bottom: the newly gold-leafed sculpture, 'Liberty' on top of the Paris opera house; city-owned bicycles for rent; Charles and Robert at their favorite neighborhood cafe; Robert eating his Galeries Lafayette pastry and coffee in the store cafeteria.

Check Out: my friend Jo's new site: Chef's Who Tweet, follow your favorite chef; add to her list of chefs who Twitter.

My Status: home, blogging, cooking, missing Paris, eating, blogging, missing France, dreaming of Barcelona...

Upcoming Posts: France and Spain: more detailed blogs about our food and travel adventures in France and Spain.  The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce.  Review:  'The Barcelona Cookbook'.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Languedoc

The Languedoc reminds me of an Audrey Hepburn movie. I'm not sure which one; I'm not even sure it's actually one of her films. The image I have stuck in my head. It could be any one of several American movies made in the 50s and 60s set in the French countryside. Those films that have the young lovers driving along a quiet French country road in a convertible; the road lined by large plane trees on both sides. They rise up and meet in the middle; dappled sunshine peeks through the canopy of leaves above. The young lovers laugh and smile as they drive off. We rode along many of those roads during our recent time in the Languedoc: land of the Canal du Midi, Carcassonne, cassoulet, spectacular seafood, incredible wines, and pretty tree-lined roads.

I've enjoyed visiting Provence and the Côte d'Azur; but somehow the Languedoc felt calmer, less populated, and a little less popular. Our time there was relaxing, unhurried. The region is also stunning in its natural beauty. The sea, farmland, vineyards, the mountains. Not far from the Spanish border so influences of Spain are ever present. We visited the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, a place both Robert and I had always wanted to see, the medieval villages of Pézenas and Minerve; we went to the open air markets in Béziers and Narbonne where we shopped for meals with our hostess, Anne de Ravel of Saveur Languedoc.

And we ate. And we cooked. And we drank. And we ate some more. Four incredible nights cooking with Anne at her family's ancestral home near the hilltop village of Montady. We arrived on a Wednesday and Anne had the menu set and the shopping complete for our first meal. She made us, I helped a bit, Tielles, a local delicacy of octopus pie, Gigot (leg of lamb) with Artichoke Sauce, Gratin of Braised Swiss Chard, Anne picked the chard from her garden when we arrived, Salad of Escarole and Garden Lettuce, again picked fresh from Anne's garden, or potager as the household vegetable garden is called in French, ending with les fromages, a local Cantal, a local brebis (sheeps' milk cheese) and a chèvre. Rosé, a popular local spring and summer wine, quenched any thirsts. A wonderful meal for our first night in the Langeuedoc. And it only got better from there.

Anne and I met in New York City in the early 80s when we both took classes at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School. Each cooking station needed two people and Anne and I were paired up. Surprise to me that she was French, and surprise to her that I had lived in France and spoke French. We both took classes to add to our cooking knowledge and skills. We became fast friends, cooked together when we could, and have remained close over the years. It had been quite a long time since she and I had been in a kitchen together, and it was great fun to cook with her again. The meals she planned, the food we cooked, it was all simple, local, fresh, French country food. A menu is often not decided upon until one has been to the market, or the butcher or fishmonger, to see what is good or fresh that day, or checked the potager to see what is ready to pick. This is how we cooked and ate for the four days we were guests at Anne's house. Food heaven!

I often wonder if I make these things up in my head but I swear I tasted the earth in the vegetables that Anne picked fresh from her garden. There's a quality of flavor, and I was reminded of experiencing the same when eating fresh out of my great-grandmother's garden as a child, that one gets from vegetables just picked and served. It's an earthiness, for lack of a better word. As if you can taste the earth itself in the flavors of the item being eaten. There's a complexity to the flavors not apparent in days old, trucked, store bought produce. It was wonderful to taste those flavors again. It was wonderful to cook and eat with Anne again. There is more to come.

This is the first of several posts on our trip to France and Spain. Soon more Languedoc food details with recipes. And more about our time with Anne; followed by food and eating in Barcelona.

Photos above, taken by Charles Thompson and Robert Guerrero, from top to bottom: the Canal du Midi; Carcassonne; Minerve; the Friday market at Béziers; cheeses for sale at the Béziers market; Anne picking swiss chard from her potager for our first meal; Anne's family home, 'Soustre'; Tielles, octopus tarts for sale at the Béziers market; Beth Higbee, a fellow visitor, and Anne doing prep work in the garden; Charles and Anne tasting raw milk Cantal cheese at the Béziers market.

My Status: home, over jet lag and blogging, cooking, eating, blogging...

Upcoming Posts: France and Spain: more detailed blogs about food and travel adventures in France and Spain. The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I hate flying. And I don't particularly relish staying in hotel rooms. Being a tourist is not a favorite pastime either. But I still love to travel. What I really like is being in a place. Letting the effects of a place slowly seep into my awareness, slowly take over my senses. At times one must kick start that process by being a typical tourist, bus tours and all. But that's just a primer to really starting to know a place. Travel is ultimately about discovery. Discovery of a new place, culture, language, food. There's a mysteriousness to uncovering, and exploring a new city, a new country. I don't know Spain the way I do France. Before this recent trip, I'd been to Madrid for a day before flying to the island of Mallorca for a week long wedding. Mallorca was total, complete heaven. I could have stayed and never left. That trip was long ago. Being back in Spain for an extended period of time allowed me to re-discover and discover more of this wonderful country. I'd definitely like to spend more time there.

After my year long stay in France when I was eighteen, I went on a three-month tour of western Europe by train. I saw almost all of the western European countries except for Spain. It was the late 70s and it was still this fairly unknown place with a recent quasi-facist past . And it was far away; stuck down by itself along with Portugal. It just didn't quite fit into the big geographic circle I was making through France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Greece, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Ireland and England. And on return trips I never quite made it there either. I didn't know what I was missing.

France, as stated in my last post, is still my home away from home, my self-adoptive country but I do have a new appreciation for Spain and the Spanish. Robert and I found the people to be warm, friendly and open. There was a sort of laissez-faire attitude that was very comfortable to us. Barcelona was a dream place. I had heard that it was. With Gaudi leading the Modernist movement, and building amazing buildings like the Sagrada Familia cathedral, the city couldn't help but be dream-like. The food followed suit. Bold, direct and vibrant. I learned how to eat and order tapas (finally!). The city is dotted with cervecerias on every corner. They're open morning, noon and night. Stop in for a cafe con leche and a montadito of egg and potato for breakfast, go back in the evening for beers, sangria and five or six tapas dishes. I'll be writing more about our food experiences as soon as I am over my jet lag and back on track but some of the delicious things we ate included: tortilla (potato omellete), patatas bravas (fried potatoes in spicy red sauce with garlic mayonnaise), pimientos del padrón (deep fried peppers), montaditos (little sandwiches with all manner of ingredients), oxtail stew, grilled shrimp and much more (to be revealed).

One of our favorite places, a block away from our amazing hotel, was Cervesería Catalana. Always busy with people spilling out on to the street. Traditional tapas; very well prepared. Our first night, and our initiation into ordering tapas, was at Cervecería Ciudad Condal. A big, bustling place with a wait for a table. After we were seated at a corner table in the back of the restaurant, we both looked at our all Spanish menus then at each other: what now? Robert speaks Spanish fluently and I can easliy get by. It wasn't that the menu was in Spanish; it was that we had no idea what the things listed on it were. The very nice waitress (used to clueless tourists) offered to bring us an assortment of dishes. It was perfect. Just enough, not too much. All amazingly delicious. We'd managed to successfully order and eat tapas in Spain. We walked off into the warm night, sated and happy. We were falling for Barcelona fast. By our third and final night it was full on love. I now understood why everybody raved about this city. Our final night in Spain was spent in Madrid, and it was another love fest; a magical city that felt a bit like London due to the cool, damp weather and a bit like Paris in its vast grandness. We both liked it all over again. Spain was quickly becoming a new favorite European country. One we'd both like to explore further.

¡Buen provecho!

Watch this spot for more about our travel and food adventures in Spain (and France).

My Status: Robert and I returned home on Saturday, June 6. I am recovering from jet lag, getting caught up and wishing I was still in France and Spain!

Upcoming Posts: France and Spain: more detailed blogs about food and travel adventures in France and Spain. The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce.

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