Monthly Archives: March 2013

Oysters at Le Baron Rouge

oystersLe Baron Rouge is an excellent wine bar located at 1 Rue Théophile Roussel, 75012 Paris (near le marché d’Aligre) open all year around but if you love oysters and live nearyby in Paris, hurry up! Tomorrow is the last day they sell oysters that come from Le Cap Ferret.

Wine tasting at Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants

Vignerons Indépendants (http://www.vigneron-independant.com/) is a network of independent winemakers who are present in France through eleven regional federations. Their aim is to produce authentic wine with personality and the process that brings the winemakers to this result is protected by a Charter of thirteen principles. To show a potential consumer that this is serious business that gives a guarantee of quality, the network puts its logo on each bottle they produce. Vignerons Indépendants logoFor example, we buy wine in Paris at our caviste who is specialized in the wines of independent winemakers, but if we need to buy wine elsewhere, we try to look for bottles with this logo as it most probably increases our satisfaction level (and contributes to the sustainable development of viticulture).

We had been offered complimentary tickets to visit Le Salon des Vignerons Indépendants (http://www.vigneron-independant.com/auxsalons/), so there was no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than head to the Northwestern part of Paris, Porte de Champerret. As soon as we walked in, I was reminded of how fun it is to talk with people who truly love what they do. Moreover, I think working so closely together with the nature, whether animals or plants, gives a person some perspective and makes him often humble…. Of course, amongst 1,000 winemakers present in the Salon, we also met those who did not bother presenting their products, but in general we met lovely and friendly wine producers. In fact, if you read the Charter, you see that an independent winemaker should respect his customers and be someone who “is happy to welcome you, to give you advice about wine tasting and introduce you his production“.Domaine Les Luquettes, BandolIf you stopped reading after “1,000 winemakers” and are now worrying about how to navigate through so many producers from eleven different regions, do not worry. It can be overwhelming but the best thing you can do is to remember enjoy it. There is (almost) nothing worse than a wine snob who doesn’t know much but pretends to know it all! Our idea was to choose approximately ten stands, and maintain a healthy balance of visiting wine producers we really like (that we want to buy from) and visiting new ones (trying to learn more). I am hereby presenting three winemakers whose wine we tasted, liked and bought, but I know there are many other excellent wines out there!Vignobles Mousset-Barrot, Châteauneuf-du-Pape1. Vignobles Mousset-Barrot, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (AOC) & Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages (AOC)

Vignobles Mousset-Barrot (http://www.vmb.fr/) is a family business that has vines growing around three château in the southern Rhone Valley of France. Grapes that grow near Château des Fines Roches and Château Jas de Bressy make red and white wine and fall under the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC. Château du Bois de la Garde produces all three colors but in terms of the appellation we are no longer longer talking about Châteauneuf-du-pape but Vin de pays de Méditerranée, Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages.Vignobles Mousset-BarrotA common factor between all of these wines is that they grow around Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is not only a world-famous appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) but also a small town near Avignon. Its history is intertwined with the Popes: in the 14th century the Popes temporarily lived in Avignon and were big supporters of the wine produced in the region.

We were particularly interested in AOC Châteauneuf-du-pape Château des Fines Roches, because a few summers ago we had a superb lunch at this château (www. chateaufinesroches.com) that overlooks the vineyards.Chateau ddes Fines RochesAfter a pleasant tasting of several reds, we ended up buying a 16.50€ bottle of red from 2010 (http://www.vmb.fr/sites/default/files/FR_roug.pdf) that goes perfectly with saucy game meat, like wild boar or rabbit stew. The next time we are in the region, we will definitely try to stop at Château Jas de Bressy, where the Vignobles Mousset-Barrot wines are stored and sold (http://vmb.fr/en/access-map).

2. Domaine Les Luquettes, Bandol (AOC) & Vin de Pays du Mont Caume (VDP)

From Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhone Valley we moved towards the French Mediterranean and a seaside town called Bandol. We know the region quite well, and many long lunches, and even longer dinners have been enjoyed in that region and in the company of une bouteille de rosé. Moreover, a few years ago we were invited to a wedding in a private island (owned by Paul Ricard) called l’Île de Bendor (www.bendor.com), ovelooking Bandol.  Domaine Les Luquettes, BandolSo when Elisabeth Lafourcade, the owner-manager (propriétaire récoltante) of Domaine Les Luquettes (http://www.les-luquettes.com) smiled at us as we were walking by, we didn’t hesitate to stop at her stand. Before we realized, we were tasting their different wines while listening to a crash course to wine history of the region. We learned that in 600 BC Ionian Greeks from Phocaea planted the first vines in the region. When Romans arrived less than 400 years later, they found vineyards doing very well; so well that the wine was ready to be exported, and this is exactly what the Romans started doing. Originally Bandol was famous for its red, and the rosé came later. Because of its history, geographical location and centuries-old tradition, the Bandol wine has become so special that it was one of the first wines to receive its own appellation (AOC Bandol) in 1941 (http://www.vinsdebandol.com/aoc/decret-du-11-novembre-1941/?lang=en).Domaine Les Luquettes, BandolWine-making history at Domaine Les Luquettes goes back generations; their cellar was built in 1852. Today their two primary appellations are Bandol (AOC) and Mont-Caume (VDP). In 1997 the first bottles of Domaine Les Luquettes were released and today they are exported to Canada and the UK.

Optimists as we are, we decided that the sun will soon start shining in Paris and we can start enjoying our new balcony, so we bought two (rosé) bottles of Vin de Pays du Mont Caume for 6€ per bottle. Now the only thing missing is the temperature to reach at least 15C (and preferably 20C…)!

3. Clos des Augustins, Languedoc Pic Saint Loup (AOC) & Vin de Pays du Val Montferrand (VDP)

At Clos des Augustins (http://www.closdesaugustins.com), located some 20km North of Montpellier, the vines are grown according to organic methods; “reasonable culture” (culture « raisonnable ») as the owners call it. In 2004 they decided to go even further to show their commitment and respect of nature: biodynamic viticulture was introduced.Clos des Augustins, Pic Saint LoupBut what does biodynamic viticulture mean? The father of the biodynamic agriculture is an Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner who suggested that the nature should be seen from a spiritual and philosophical perspective as well. In my own simplistic words, I say that he wanted us to see the nature beyond green leaves and black soil –to realize that there are forces beyond our knowledge and no matter how much medicine we give to a sick plant, it won’t work unless we do it in respect of these spiritual forces living in the nature.

How does this then translate into a wine producer’s daily life? Well, he needs to practice his profession according to the lunar calendar and the alignment of planets. For example, only certain days are good for bottling wine. This may all sound a bit weird especially in the beginning, but biodynamic wines have indeed proven skeptics wrong by doing really well in blind tastings! (useful information can be found here:

http://www.boissetfamilyestates.com/press/FortuneBiodynamics.pdf)wineThe owner, Roger Mezy, offered us to taste all three colors produced by Clos des Augustins. In terms of the appellation, we were now talking about Pic Saint Loup (AOC), Val de Montferrand (VDP) and Coteaux du Languedoc (AOC). Our bags were already very heavy but white wine was something we had not yet bought, so we purchased two bottles of “vin de copains” (something to be drunk with friends): Les Bambins Clos des Augustins, Vin de Pays du Val de Montferrand (2011). We paid 8.50€ per bottle and the bottles are in the fridge waiting for maybe a fish dish, or simply for friends to come over!

PS If you are interested in wine and are planning to come to Paris in the autumn or spring time, try to coincide your visit with one of the wine salons. It really is a lot of fun and provides an excellent way to learn more.  And if you are just driving around France, do not be afraid to stop to buy wine directly from the producers. It is best to call in advance,  but no one says you cannot stop by and ask if this is a good time to visit. Lastly, if you are interested in individual making of things, do not forget to do a little bit of research in order to find the logo of Vignerons Indépendants in the bottles you buy!

Happy Holi!

If there is one country that I associate with colors, it is India. And if there is one celebration that represents colors, it is Holi.

This year Holi is celebrated today. Every year the exact date changes, according to the lunar calendar. When I first visited India years ago, I arrived in the middle of the night and the next day, without knowing it, it was Holi. I was in Delhi, drove around in tuk-tuk, and watched mainly young men and children throwing colored water on other people. As we entered a lunch place, we were covered in pink, yellow, green, blue… Blame it on jet lag once again, but I was wishing everyone “Happy Holidays” until my husband corrected me and said it is “Happy Holi”….. IMG_3145This ancient tradition, originally known as Holika, marks the arrival of spring. It was celebrated most probably already in 300 BC and a stone inscription in Ramgarh, Vindhya province, remains a proof of that. In Hampi there is a 16th-century sculpted panel showing happy Holi celebrations. There are many stories associated with the festival’s origin, but one is closely linked to Krishna, who asked his mother why his beloved friend Radha’s color is so much more fair than his, and his mother suggested, jokingly, that he spray Radha’s face and hair with colors. However, it would be insufficient to limit Holi to colors: like so many other Hindu celebrations and legends, Holi is fundamentally about the victory of good over evil.

Happy Holi to everyone, and especially to my Indian friends!

PS These websites give you a feeling of Holi:

http://www.businessinsider.com/photos-of-holi-the-hindu-festival-of-colors-2013-3#

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2297386/Lathmar-Holi-Festival-Hindus-celebrate-start-spring-rainbow-colour.html

Chong Kneas and other floating villages around the Tonlé Sap lake

Besides the Angkor Wat and  other temples, where the trip startsmany tourists end up visiting the Tonlé Sap lake and river system, and its famous floating villages.

Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and its ecosystem is unique in many ways. During the monsoon, the lake’s surface area becomes six times bigger compared to its size during the dry season from November to May. As if this was not impressive enough, the lake changes its flow twice a year (and this is not a result of an old-style Communist experiment…).Catholic church

Moreover, it is estimated that over 1.2 million ethnic Vietnamese and Cham people inhabit the floating villages around the lake, mainly living from fishing (and tourism). More than half of Cambodia’s fish supply comes from this lake, so the lake’s importance for the entire Cambodia, economically and otherwise, cannot be exaggerated.

From Siem Reap it takes less than 30 minutes to reach the harbor (see the first picture) where you hop onto a private boat which takes you to the closest floating village from Siem ReaBuddhist templep: Chong Kneas. For 20USD per person, you have a private boat with a captain and a guide. The entire trip lasts about one hour and thirty minutes. After a fifteen-minute drive you enter the actual lake and start seeing water dwellings: private houses, shops, garages, churches (see the photo of a Catholic church), temples (see the photo of a Buddhist temple), schools etc floating around more or less in harmony.

Basically, what you see is a floating slum. The water is so dirty that you may not want to eat any more amok… a shopSurprisingly the lake does not smell bad, but it is clear everything gets thrown into the lake, and that the sustainability of this ecosystem is in danger as much as inhabitants’ health…

I understand and agree that Chong Kneas offers some nice photo opportunities (early in the morning or at sun set!) and therefore it cannot be labeled as “waste of time”, but I did not appreciate the obvious and overwhelming commercialization of the trip. At one point our guide informed us that we will stop at a communal shop “to buy some food as a donation for a poor local floating school”. We should have just said “no thanks” right away, but blame it oin front of the schooln the sun or jet lag, and we didn’t say anything. We were brought into a floating shop and the seller expected two of us to buy a huge bag of rice, that cost more than a similar rice bag costs in the Litte India of Paris…. We only purchased water and lollipops, and left followed by “a look that could kill you”……

We then visited the famous school. It was like entering a temple: in front there was an altar where the offerings were placed. There was a huge bag of rice but I bet it was there to make others like us feel guilty. school girlThe pupils did not even notice us, and I don’t mean they should have performed a dance to thank us, but yes, I expected some kind of acknowledgment of our existence (or rather arrival of those lollipops at least). The lack of any sign simply gave me an impression that these children knew none of the rice, water, juice, noodles etc was meant for them!

The same evening I was reading The Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide (January-April 2013) and found something on page 55 that confirmed my impression: “Rice scams: Tout tells you orphanage/school needs rice for kids. Takes you to market where you buy wildly overpriced rice to donate. Tout/vendor split profit.” (FYI: This same scam actually happens with women wanting you to buy milk for their babies) locals

I am not saying don’t visit the Tonlé Sap lake and Chong Kneas, but I do recommend you to visit other floating villages that are a little more far away but much, much nicer. Kompong Pluk, Kompong Khleang and Me Chrey are all mentioned in Cambodia, the Lonely Planet. Cambodia & Laos by Eyewitness recommends Kompong Pluk (“an authentique insight”) and Kompong Khleang (“the largest floating settlement”). The French guide book Le Routard Cambodge + extensions Laos puts it most bluntly: “If there is one (floating village) to visit, it is this one (Kampong Khleang)”.

PS It is extremely easy to organize a visit to any of these villages, but should you want someone friendly and reliable with a car, read my previous post about Siem Reap and Mr. Chhor Chamnan.

Eat Drink Sleep Siem Reap (survival guide to Siem Reap)

Our stay in Siem Reap was far from perfect, but I think I have some tips to share with you should you plan to visit this city in the northwestern part of Cambstreet view Siem Reapodia.

WHEN TO GO: We arrived in Siem Reap on February 11, 2013, which was the second day of the Chinese New Year and therefore probably the busiest week of the entire year. According to Chheuy Chhorn, deputy director of the tourism department in Siem Reap, 41 flights from China and Vietnam landed everyday during February 11-13 (source: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/2013021461364/Business/angkor-wat-sees-tourism-spike-over-lunar-new-year.html). Imagine the abundance otemple in SRf tourists and then imagine the missing photo opportunities! If you have a choice, do not go to Siem Reap just before, during or right after the Chinese New Year. Siem Reap, thanks to its proximity to Angkor Wat and other famous temples, constantly receives a large number of tourists, but try visiting off season, even during the rainy season.

HOW LONG TO STAY: Prior to visiting Siem Reap many people were astonished at our plan to stay for approximately fiIMG_0539ve days. Many thought two, or at very maximum three days should more than plenty. I still think five days was a good length, and that in general one needs three full days to visit the temples and the surroundings of Siem Reap. Temple tickets are available for one, three or seven days and we purchased a three-day ticket and have no regrets. Since there is so much history, knowledge and beauty to be absorbed, I would recommend splitting those three days over four or even five days (ticket allows you to do so).  It took the rulers centuries to build all those temples, so to get a real feeling one or two days is just not enough!

WHERE TO SLEEP: Our main criteria regarding accommodation was to stay at a local, traditional place and support the local economy. So I did some Tripadvisor research before leaving Paris and found a guesthouse called Tranquility Angkor Villa (the photo below with the bed) and booked it over internet. It started badly: upon our arrival at 10pmfrom the airport there was a problem with overbooking (they constantly double book). We searched everywhere on internet to find another hotel to sleep in but everything was full. Everything. The  manager suggested we sleep on the mattress on their balcony but after seeing a huge rat run by we said no. To cut the story short, we ended up sleeping two nights at Tranquility Angkor Villa but on the second morning I woke up with hundreds of bites all over my body…… I had been bitten by bed bugs! We had planned to move to another more central guesthouse anyway so off we went. We paid 30usd per night (and got reimbursed half becauseTranquility Angkor Villa of the bed bugs) but in my opinion there are so many nicer (and cheaper!) places to stay at for much better quality and location! Do not let Tripadvisor reviews about the owners’  friendliness to fool you. Lastly, two brothers are not even owners…

(As soon as I realized what had happened I wrote a review on Tripadvisor, and I rewrote it upon our return to Paris, and still today, nothing has been published! I see other negative reviews have been written about Tranquility Angkor Villa since our stay but I am still curiously waiting to see when mine comes out, or if it ever will, and why not……)

It has rarely happened to me anywhere in the world that everything is full, but during that week it seemed to be the case in Siem Reap. Almost. For the rest of our stay we slept at Popular Guest House (the photo on the right) which was more centrally located and clean. If you are stuck in Siem Reap and “everything is full”, you may find a room at Popular Guest House because they have over 50 rooms (they are more like a one-Popular Guest Housestar hotel). We found that staff was pretty unfriendly and only interested in money but what can you expect from a place where you pay 10USD per night? There is also a rooftop restaurant but it serves nothing to write home about… (http://www.popularguesthouse.com/)

This said, I would suggest a few places that I heard good things about. Babel Guesthouse (http://www.babelsiemreap.hostel.com/) is a guesthouse located in Wat Bo Road, about 2km from Pub Street (where Tranquility Angkor Villa is also), and it is also recommended by Cambodia and Laos by Eyewitness guidebook. A Finnish couple we met on the Siem Reap – Viantine flight spoke very highly about Babel Guesthouse, saying it was excellent, very clean and food so delicious they didn’t need to leave the guesthouse in the evening. My Home Tropical Garden Villa (http://www.myhomecambodia.com/) is a small, stylish guesthouse with a swimming pool in the same street than Popular Guest House (about 10 minutes walk from Pub Street). This is where we wanted to stay, but could not get a room. Double AC room costs 20USD. A very affordable hotel we heard good things about is Central Boutique Angkor Hotel (http://www.centralboutiqueangkorhotel.com/) where room prices start at 47USD.

In higher category, Hôtel de La Paix is going through renovation and rebranding, and will open as Park Hyatt Siem Reap (http://siemreap.park.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels-siemreap-park/index.jsp?null) very soon (Q1 2013?). A dear friend stayed at Hôtel de La Paix last year and loved it beyond words. “It was BLISS”, he told me.

Otherwise, most of the four- and five-star resorts are located on the Airport Road: far away from Pub Street but more easily accessible should you want to return to your hotel for lunch in between the temple visits. Just last week a friend stayed at Borei Angkor Resort & Spa http://www.boreiangkor.com/) and he got a very interesting off-season deal “definitely worth the money”.

PS Like us, you may want to have a pool to jump into after walking up and down all those temple stairs under the burning sun. However, unless you spend the money to stay at a fancy resort, you do not need to look for a guesthouse with a pool. First of all, temple visits are time-consuming so you may not even have time for swimming. Secondly, you can use a pool at almost any hotel in exchange of few USD.

WHERE TO EAT: Khmer Kitchen

During our five-day stay in we mainly ate at Khmer Kitchen (http://www.khmerkitchens.com/) located in the Alley (be aware of other restaurants that carry an almost identical name). We particularly liked fish amok, chicken khmer curry (with pumpkins, potatoes Khmer Kitchenand carrots) and mango salad. I cannot say the food was very refined but it was consistently good enough, and the setting cosy. Unfortunately the service was quite inattentive and slow most of the time.

One day we tried Angkor Palm (http://www.angkorpalm.com/) because it has a reputation as a good and safe place to get a good introduction to KhmeAngkor Palmr cuisine . The sampling platter for two (the photo on the right) had nothing amazing on it except maybe the spring rolls…

Our last night in Siem Reap came and it was time to change and try something different, so why not Cambodian BBQ (http://www.restaurant-siemreap.com/html/cambodianbbq.php)? We ordered “Real local BBQ”, 10USD for two, which includes beef, chicken or pork, bell peppers, lettuce, onion, basil, rice and yellow needles. As you see in the photo on the left, the mBBQeat is cooked on the domed part and the vegetables in the stock surrounding the domed part. There was a Khmer sauce for dipping but did it make the barbeque more tasty? Not really. It was a fun-enough experience to do once, but I am sure there are better places to taste authentic Cambodian barbeque.

For coffee, we tried Blue Pumpkin (http://www.tbpumpkin.com/) but were not impressed by their coffee or cookies. However, we really appreciated having a quiet moment early in the morning at Le Grand Cafe. EsprLe Grand Cafeesso was excellent, venue beautiful and service efficient. The woman we met there (manager/owner?) speaks very good French and is very friendly. Le Grand Cafe reminds me of some cafes we visited in Havanna and Santiago de Cuba, and I actually regret we didn’t go back in the evening for a drink.

TRANSPORT & VISITS: Every guesthouse and hotel can organize a guide and a car/tuk tuk, but it is cheaper if you have a direct contact. Toward the end of our stay we got to know a young man called Chhor Chamnan and regret of not meeting him earlier. Chhor has been in tourism business for 13 years, working regularly with the Australian Embassy in Singapore. He is pleasant, reliable and his English is very good –highly recommended. He charges 20USD per day for a car in Angkor area and 40USD to visit the sites more far away. Should you need his guide services, he takes an extra 20USD per day.

His email is chhorchamnan@hotmail.com and mobile number +855 (0) 12786723. (We made a mistake of booking our guide via Popular Guest House and the guide’s knowledge was appalling. Apparently finding a good guide is difficult because the best ones are reserved for tour groups and luxury hotels well in advance)

IN CASE OF URGENCY: In the Northeastern end of Pub Street there is a pharmacy called U-Care (http://ucarepharma.com/) which is really as good and reliable as any Western pharmacy. Staff speaks English and are friendly.

For more urgent needs there is Royal Angkor International Hospital on the Airport Road, affiliated with Bangkok Hospital Medical Center (http://www.royalangkorhospital.com). They may not accept your insurance, so you have to pay upfront (it can get very expensive, as a simple consultation costs around 120USD) and Khmer China Clinicget reimbursed by your insurance company once back in your home country –not the way it should work!). Right in the center of Siem Reap, near the upcoming Hyatt, there is also Friendship Khmer-China Clinic (no website but easy to find). It is much less fancy, but highly recommended for their availability, reactivity, kindness and attitude (and prices are substantially lower). I probably would not want to spend a night there but some of the most amazing human beings I have ever met work there.  As your third option, and should you want something Western, there is Naga Healthcare (http://www.nagahealthcare.com/). In our case Doctor Joost Hoekstra was not very helpful, but he speaks French, too.

BOTTOM LINE: The center of Siem Reap is not very nice. In the evening it becomes a Drinking Factory and the epicenter of all happening is its famous Pub Street (see the photo). We only enjoyed the center in the early morning when everyone else (who was not already visiting temples) was too hang over to get up. Pub StreetDuring our Southeast Asia tour we met many people who shared this vision and I think it is a pity. Locals surely are pleased about the foreign currency inflow, but I cannot help myself but to wonder could the tourism have taken a different direction in Siem Reap? This said, I think it is important to separate Siem Reap and the temples. If you are going to Siem Reap, it is most likely because of the temples. So, forget the center and Pub Street, and try to focus on enjoying the beauty of the architecture and understanding the vision of the Hindu kings who built those temples because this is what Angkor really is about and what really matters.

Kir at La Palette

IMG_2358There are many superb old-fashioned cafes in Paris that I like going to especially with friends visiting Paris. As a bonus, I get to play tourist, too. During these last two days, I have been to Le Petit Marcel near the Pompidou Centre, Cafe de la Mairie near the Eglise Saint-Sulpice and La Palette in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

La Palette, like many other similar cafes, was frequented by Picasso and Hemingway, amongst other famous names. When we walked in, the lunch hour was just ending and the waiters were getting ready for their own lunch pause. The snow was falling outside but inside the paintings and their yellow and orange colors warmed us up. Large mirrors on all walls were very scratched. There was a charismatic-looking American couple and us. It was an odd hour for an apéritif, but that is all we felt like having, so deux kir s’il vous plaît Monsieur!