The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Drinkblogging: The Battle for Manhattan

It's one of my favorite cocktails, the Manhattan--it's simple to make, the recipe is easy to remember, and along with the Martini is one of the most ideal after-work cocktails for sipping on the balcony while you take your tie off and decompress.

But for most of the time we've been in France, I've had to do without. Here's why: You need only four ingredients to make a Manhattan, but most of them are difficult to come by in France.

Bourbon or Rye:
I'm told that while bourbon is perfectly acceptable in a Manhattan, the true and original Manhattan is made with rye whiskey. But you know, I've never even tried it: I always have a bottle of bourbon around, so no real need to go buy something else. Plus, when I see rye at the ABC store, I don't know the good brands from the lousy; I know which bourbons I like.

Here in France, it's moot: ask for rye at the local caviste, even a really good one like Malleval, and they'll scratch their heads and point you toward the American whiskey shelf (much, much smaller than the adjacent Scotch section). Bourbon is not too hard to find here, though the varieties are few and the prices exorbitant. Jack Daniel's costs about the same as Glenfiddich or Lagavulin, and your small-batch brands like Woodford Reserve or Blanton's approach 50 euros.

Sweet Vermouth:
This one's easy and inexpensive, thankfully. The French drink lots of vermouth at apero time, and a bottle of Martini Rosso is about 5 euros at Monoprix.

Angostura bitters:
A Manhattan calls for just a few drops of bitters, but they make all the difference, providing much needed balance and interesting complexity to a drink that would otherwise become too sweet, even cloying. So I spent a lot of time scouring the beverage aisle, the baking section, and the ethnic foods section at Monoprix, Casino, Carrefour, Auchan... Malleval came to the rescue finally, though they had to bring around a ladder and climb up to the top shelf in the back. I was expecting sticker shock, and I got it: 22 euros. Oh well, it is used so sparingly it should last me a while.

Maraschino cherry:
Again, a small thing, but so so important. As important as the olive in a martini. A Manhattan is not a Manhattan without one, and for that reason I had not had a Manhattan in the nearly two years since we moved here. Maraschino cherries as we know them are not sold in France. Full stop.

Let's get a little background on the Maraschino cherry. Originally, cherries soaked in Maraschino liqueur were sold in the US and primarily used in baking or topping desserts, but then along came Prohibition and our government in its eternal wisdom rightfully protected us from the evil that would result from people slurping the liquid out of their jars of cherries. An entrepenurial sort devised a way to take regular cherries, drain them of their fluids and color, and replace those with an unnatural-looking bright-red (or green, or whatever) sugar syrup. Thus were born the jars of $1.99 Maraschino cherries one finds on the shelf at Harris Teeter next to the cocktail onions.

Of course, in France this type of flavorless aberration is not regarded as edible, by humans anyway. I looked everywhere for it, unsuccessfully. I even considered making my own, by buying some cherries at the marche and soaking them in a jar of Maraschino liqueur (not commonplace itself, but possible to obtain). So I started checking the booze aisle at the usual stores for Maraschino. Then one day last week, miracle of miracles: an actual jar of actual honest-to-DeGaulle Maraschino cherries, next to the weirdo eaux-de-vie at Auchan. I scooped it up and sprinted to the checkout, not even noticing the price sticker.

"You paid FOURTEEN EUROS for some damn Maraschino cherries?!?!" was V's (entirely justified) response when I got home. I don't mind. I'll probably even drink the juice.

To sum up, the ingredients for this drink cost me a total of 81 euros, or $117.45.

[Takes sip]

Yep. Worth it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chinese New Year Photo Dump

Lyon's Chinatown is not very large, as I mentioned way back when I first discovered (to my relief) that I would have a steady source of Sriracha sauce, spicy udon and pho noodle joints.

It's not especially picturesque, as it's in a run-down graffiti-stained neighborhood wedged between the Arab district of the 3rd arrondissement and the student ghetto close to Université Lyon I.

There's no decorative gate a la San Francisco, no Buddhist temples that I know of, no faux-chinois architecture. Still, I go there about once a week on the odd ingredient run or for a huge bowl of pho and a cold Singha (€7.50, quite a bargain for a sit-down meal in Lyon).

This Chinatown also qualifies as the real deal thanks to its Chinese New Year celebration. On the New Year, a team of lion dancers [photo 1] accompanied by a rough-but-tireless-and-enthusiastic percussion section [photo 2] makes its way through the neighborhood, stopping at each store and restaurant.

The streets here are narrow and crowd control for the event nonexistent, and with throngs of people [photo 3] it's every man for himself to get a good view of the goings-on.

We went this year for the first time, not having known the wheres and whens last year. We had Tater in his stroller (as I can't sling him since I blew out my back a few weeks ago), which proved to be a challenge. Incredibly, he managed to fall asleep amidst the crowd and the firecrackers and the drumming and general chaos.

The pattern is the same at each establishment: The lions and drummers dance/march/frolic down the street very slowly with the aid of a team of handlers carrying long poles to maintain some sort of perimeter.

The lions stop in front of an open establishment and do their lion dance thing as the percussion section raises a clangorous racket to chase away evil spirits.

Then someone says a few words (impossible to hear over the noise), and huge strings of firecrackers are touched off by someone of importance. In this case [photo 4] the celebrant is Lyon mayor Gérard Collomb [man with bald spot plugging one ear, just to right of white lion] the narrow streets booming with the echoes of the reports. The red paper wrappers of the firecrackers fill the air like confetti and drift to the sidewalks like red snow [photo 5, family portrait in front of (presumably) the family restaurant].

Then the lions get to work, entering the establishment and rousting any evil spirits left hanging around, dancing through kitchens or down the packaged-dried-squid aisle. I couldn't get anywhere near while this was happening due to the massive chokepoint of people at the doorway, so I can offer no further insight here.

Having done their work, the lions are rewarded by a gift of sustenance: a bundle of lettuce and green onions hung over the doorway beforehand [photo 6, entrance to Supermarché China Express, "my" Asian grocery].

The lions take turns climbing up to "eat" the lettuce [photo 7] as the crowd applauds and kids look on [photo 8].

Then there is some sleight of hand (or foot) as weary lion dancers are substituted out and fresh legs take their place [photo 9, dancer with lion pants. Do they get to keep those year-round? Cause I'd wear mine all the time]. The procession, um, proceeds to the next establishment and new waves of spectators elbow to the front as others drift back through the crowd. And the cycle repeats-- all afternoon.

After a few cycles, we take our leave; the crowd has moved on, and we need to pick up some extra-firm tofu, lemongrass, and tomyum-coated peanuts. Eh bien, Gung Xi Fa Choi, y'all.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Frogs! Innnn! Spaaaaaace!

On the ground floor of my office building, there is a lone vending machine that sells both cold drinks and a few snacks (French offices typically do not have break rooms/refrigerators/microwaves, as one is expected to eat lunch at home or at a restaurant). One midafternoon last week, in need of a caffeine bolus dose, I wandered down to the machine and plunked in my 1-euro coin for une coca. Something behind the glass caught my eye: A candy bar wrapper that read "WIN A TRIP TO SPACE!" in a groovy Star Trekky font.

I'm not really a candy bar eater, especially when there are so many great chocolatiers and patisseries around for my rare sugar cravings, but this was too good to pass up--it was my boyhood dream to become an astronaut, and even though I realize now that it is very unlikely that NASA will call me up in need of someone to go up on the shuttle to the ISS and, erm, interpret and publish cancer research data, I still can imagine the roar and thrust of the booster rockets, the curve of the blue-green earth spinning away below, the infinite blackness of space, and peeing into a bag in zero gravity.

The coins dropped in and the candy bar clunked into the tray. Could this be my Willy Wonka Golden Ticket?

It was a Nestle Lion bar, which I had never had before--apparently some sort of energy-boosting chocolate with caramel and crisped rice, like a cross between a Nestle Crunch and a caramel Power Bar. Not bad, not great; but I was more interested in the wrapper anyway.

I carefully spread the wrapper out. Here's how it read (translation errors all mine):
Win 1 trip into space (see rules on back). [this was accompanied by a small picture of a shuttle-like spacecraft and some very tiny text:] With restriction that this prize has not already been won; photos and illustrations are non-contractual.

Join the pioneers of space exploration... Admire the earth from space and discover weightlessness!! [sic] Find your embarkation number inside this package. Enter at and instantly discover what you've won. Play also by SMS: send SPACE and your embarkation number to 61345 (.35 per message + price of an SMS according to your carrier). Prize awarded only upon presentation of this wrapper. Thousands of other prizes to win!

No purchase necessary. Suborbital space voyage valued at 147,000 euros as of August 2007, subject to technical feasibility and physical state of the winner.

There weren't any specifics, but I assume that Nestle's marketing department pre-booked a seat on Virgin Galactic, the first commercial spaceline--which is selling tickets at about that price (demo video here).

It really is an amazing world, isn't it?

Needless to say, I didn't win.

[Images of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo not mine, obviously]

Friday, February 08, 2008

Tina Goes to the Supermarket!*

You have probably heard people speak lovingly about how food shopping is done in France: You go to the boulangerie for your bread, to the boucherie for your meat, to the marché for your produce, to the fromagerie for your cheese, and so forth. This all sounds very lovely and charming and Norman Rockwell (if Norman Rockwell had been French), and this example of French art de vivre continues even in the large urban agglomerations of the 21st century.

It’s also a big pain in the ass.

Which is why France has supermarkets, too. I’ve mentioned them before—supermarkets have become part of the French landscape, and in fact several of the world’s largest hypermarket chains (e.g. Carrefour) are French. When you don’t have time to go to five different stores to buy ingredients to make dinner, you hit your local Casino, Marché U or Monoprix. Me, I never have time to go buy my groceries one item at a time, so I often visit our neighbourhood Monoprix a couple of times a week. Here’s a typical trip to the store, with pictures.

Once I've got my list made out, I load up my bags: Having no car (and no means to park it right in front of our place anyway) means I've got to carry everything on my person, so I take an empty backpack to the store (V. prefers a pousette de marché, a large sturdy bag on wheels, but I can't stand the rattling noise it it's a pain to take it up steps). I also bring along my own plastic grocery bags to reuse. Many French supermarkets charge a few cents a bag for plastic grocery bags, or only offer larger, heavier-duty reusable bags that cost a euro or two. Our neighborhood Monoprix does give away as many bags as you want for free, but here's the genius bit: they also have a "caisse vert" (green checkout) that distributes no bags--and this line is always by far the shortest and quickest, kind of a grocery HOV lane. Give people attractive options, let the invisible hand sort things out... that's good policy right there.

So I'm out the door and down the elevator, where this li'l' scamp [photo] lets me know about the wet paint on the elevator doors. (All photos on this post were taken before our Spain trip, hence the Christmas lights and Fete des Lumieres decorations.)

I pass where the painter making the trompe l'oeil scene in our lobby has stopped for the day, and snap a picture. (Photo; The painting has since finished, and it actually looks pretty good. I had had my doubts about it.) The artist has brought in an actual tree branch as a visual aid.

Most of the boutiques on Rue de la Republique close at either 7:30 or 8PM, so the street clears fairly quickly except for people wandering to restaurants or movie theaters. There are red Velo'V bikes cruising along, and the occasional scooter whining up the middle of the street.

In Place de la Republique the fountain has been temporarily drained, and in its dry bed is a giant Newton's Cradle, specially assembled for the Fete des Lumieres. A couple of guys string power cables to it from a nearby sound booth, testing it for its debut on Thursday at the Fete. An enormous Doberman wearing a muzzle watches from the back seat of a parked Peugeot 206. An old guy smoking a pipe sits on a bench staring as if the fountain is still there.

I pass in front of Printemps, the high-end department store; its show windows are full of Christmas displays featuring plush little reindeer skating on frozen ponds, tucking into Christmas dinners and so forth. What's impressive about these is that these are animated displays much like you'd see at a US mall, but that they are not electronic; all of them are marionettes strung on loops of clear monofilament that run on a motorized camshaft across the inside top of the window. Imagine the forethought it takes to make a reindeer convincingly paddle a canoe by this method, then multiply that by about 30 reindeer figures, then that by about 5 show-windows (I could have sworn I shot video of this, but I don't seem to be able to lay my hands on it)(UPDATE: Here's a link to someone else's video from the Printemps in Paris...Bears instead of reindeer but you get the idea).

"Our" Monoprix is in a brand-new building that occupies the former site of the Grand Bazaar, an indoor market that became structurally unsound and had to be pulled down. When a historic building is destroyed like that, the building that replaces it does not have to even attempt to blend in with its neighbors, so the new Grand Bazaar building is a modern glass construction [photo] that during the day nicely reflects the Bourse building across the street [at left]. The new building also connects directly to the Cordeliers Metro station [foreground], so one could go from the Monoprix checkout line to the platform in a few steps, which seems like a handy feature--except that shoplifters found it handy as well and could time a very short dash to the closing Metro doors and be halfway to Vaise before security could even respond. The "Sortie: Acces Metro" doors are now locked and seem to be set to stay that way.

The security guy gives me a look, too, as I come in, but doesn't ask to look in my bag. This Monoprix is on four levels: The ground floor has women's clothes and makeup, there is a cafe/boulangerie one flight up, and the 3rd floor has shampoo, diapers, light bulbs and the like. Groceries are downstairs in the basement, so I take the escalator down. Some bell peppers, lardons, a block of morbier, yogurt, coffee, Evian, a sixer of Stella, paper towels, and I'm ready. The cashier scans my Monoprix carte de fidelité and watches impassively as I pack my groceries into the backpack. No such thing as bagboys in France; you're on your own (however every supermarket offers delivery, sometimes free if your purchases are over €75 or so).

Back on the street, the counter guys at American Sandwich (where you can get an Al Capone, a Las Vegas, or an Elvis --which is sadly not fried peanut-butter-and-banana) fold down their awning for the night. A skateboarder cruises by, wheels roaring on the pavers, and half-heartedly rail-grinds on a low planter. Bright orange paper litters the street like fallen leaves where a cell phone company had been passing out coupons earlier in the day.

Back at Place de la Republique, the florist's stand and the newspaper kiosk are buttoned up tight for the night. The electricians have found the right cords and the balls of the Newton's Cradle are lit up with a light that goes from purple to blue then white. They're not moving, even though I wait a minute or two to be sure. I can't watch too long; still dinner to make.

*"I'll take obscure 80's NC college ska-pop bands for $1000, Alex."