Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Swedish Seafood Feast With the Founders of EatAbout: The New Way to Eat Out

Last week, I went to a stranger's flat for dinner, ate fresh crab caught the day before, got locked in the bathroom, didn't get home until midnight - and had the best time I'd had in a long while. The event? A seafood feast hosted by the co-founders of EatAbout, Philip Kallberg and Felix Braberg.

But wait! Before you yawn and say, "Been there, done that. Isn't this just another supperclub?" EatAbout isn't your average supperclub. Instead of being shoved into a room with randoms and forced to make awkward conversation on the edge of a communal table, EatAbout is ideal for enjoying a private dinner in a chef's home with a bunch of your closest friends or family. And that's exactly what Thursday night felt like: sitting around the table with six foodie friends I hadn't seen in ages and chatting up a storm over Chef Felix's delicious family recipes.

Instead of going to a noisy restaurant or pub, we treated the flat as if it were our own for the next few hours, plonking our bags down on the couch, mistaking the closet for a bathroom (me), getting accidentally locked in the bathroom (me, again) until Felix's reassuring voice called out, "Don't worry - this happens ALL the time!" as everyone else laughed at me when I returned to the table, red-faced.

The menu that evening was inspired by Philip's and Felix's Swedish heritage, though we started the three-course meal with a Peruvian ceviche amuse bouche and a glass of champagne. It was so delicious, I kept going back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. Plus, Philip and Felix were so easy going and welcoming, I'd forgotten that we only just met and started chatting to them like they were good friends!

Between courses, Felix emerged from the kitchen to tell us a little bit about the next course and we were able to ask him anything. When he and Philip first started EatAbout, they used to stand outside their flat inviting passerbys upstairs for a £5 steak lunch! We laughed. Some people took them up on their offer, but I'm not sure I would have - would you? It sounded way too good to be true!

But back to the food. Our starter was an impressive platter of dressed crabs with three different seasonal dressings, including melted butter (which always tastes amazing with seafood) and a refreshing cucumber and vinegar dressing, which was my favorite.

The main course was a fragrant, creamy saffron fish soup which is the perfect kind of soup to curl up on a couch with - plus, it was so cold outside that day, we needed something to warm our stomachs!

Just when I thought I couldn't fit anything else in, Felix appeared from the kitchen with a recipe he found from his grandma's attic: caramelized apples with rosemary (magical combination, if you haven't tried it before!) and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was the perfect dessert to end the evening with. And when I looked down at my watch, I was shocked by the time: 10:30 pm! I'd had so much fun, I didn't notice that the sun had long disappeared and the sky was now pitch black.

I left Philip's and Felix's flat with a small box of homemade sweets and this adorable, personalized stone, which had been used as a place setting.

I loved all the personalised aspects of the evening - each menu had a sweet poem printed on the back written for each of us, and it was clear that Philip and Felix had visited our blogs before meeting us in person. It all felt very inclusive, laid back, and fun. We brought our own drinks (Felix recommended wines that would complement his menu) and we refilled our glasses as we chatted late into the night. There's even an option to customize the menus if you wish! I'd be eager to try another dinner at a different chef's home - I can see it being something my friends and I would love to do together.

Great news! EatAbout is offering Angloyankophile readers a £10 discount off any booking - just use the code GOEATABOUT. I'm thinking that this would be fun for a birthday or a spring/summer get-together with friends.

Huge thanks to EatAbout, Philip and Felix for hosting me. All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Travel Link-Up: Learning How To Share Less

Before I became a "travel blogger", I just, um, travelled. I didn't have a Twitter or Instagram account (heck, I didn't even have an iPhone) and I took a picture when I wanted to - not because I thought it would be "shareable content" (gross). My life was a hashtag-free zone.

But then - and I can't exactly pinpoint when the shift happened - I suddenly had a few more readers. I started sharing my posts on social media and they were shared, and my writing got a little bit of attention from people other than my mom (no offense, Mom).

It made me happy. I liked being part of this community of travel enthusiasts. I'd always wanted to be a travel writer and this blog allowed me to do just that - without any pressure or pitches or expectations or rejections.

But slowly, that's exactly what happened with my blog. I started pitching to a hypothetical audience (that's you). I asked myself before writing a caption, composing a tweet, or pressing "publish" on a post - would you read this? Would you like it? Like it enough to leave a comment? Like it enough to share?

I'd be lying if I said that I wrote this blog just for myself. Sometimes, I feel like I only write it for you. So, I started obsessing over what you would want to read. What your reaction would be. What would annoy you or make you laugh or make you think. It made (still makes) me anxious and paranoid and insecure.

My vacations became all about taking photos and pre-planning blog posts (which I wrote about here). I was anything but relaxed. I was on my phone all the time and ignoring my poor husband, who simply wanted to enjoy where he was - and whom he was with.

So, before we landed in Bordeaux, I decided to do something a little different: I would take any photos I wanted to at the beginning of a meal or a hotel stay, then put my camera away for the rest of the time and give myself half an hour or so in the evening to post any images I felt like sharing.

It made all the difference. I could fully focus on savouring the flavours on my plate, or taking in my surroundings and chatting with my husband, instead of being pre-occupied with getting the right angle or light for a photo and saying, "Yep, mmm hmm," as I uploaded another photo to Instagram or Twitter.

As a result, I returned from Bordeaux feeling refreshed and inspired. The slow-living culture had appealed to me, sure, but more importantly, the self-control I practised helped me get the most out of our trip.

I'm not going to pretend that it solved all my problems. I'm still anxious. I still fret over which photo to take, which image to post, what words to share. I've just reduced that anxiety by a fraction. And that fraction has allowed me to remember why I write in the first place - not for you (sorry!), but for me. 

This month's travel link-up theme was "Travel Blogger Problems" - if you're a blogger, what tops your list? And if you're not a blogger, what do you think of it all? Have we become too preoccupied in documenting and sharing every aspect of our lives? Join in the discussion with hosts Angie, Emma, Jessi, and this month's guest host, Lauren.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Rainy Afternoon (And Fantastic Dinner!) in Saint-Emilion

The weather was less-than-ideal when we arrived in Saint-Emilion. But there were so many silver linings to our wonderful visit to this charming town that by the time we returned to our Airbnb in Bordeaux city centre that evening with my new leather flats completely waterlogged and ruined, all I could think about was the epic dinner we'd just experienced.

But let me start from the beginning.

After a terrific and informative tour and tasting at Chateau Cantenac (which, confession: I'd booked from my phone in bed the night before), we headed into Saint-Emilion itself and browsed several wine shops before finding one that sold John's precious Chateau D'Yquem "Ygrec" 2014. I made him buy it even though the price was slightly ridiculous (like, over €150 ridiculous) because I was so sick of hearing him pine after it like a lovesick puppy every day of our vacation. So, now he's just waiting for the right time to bust it out of the tissue paper (indeed, when we got home, I overheard him saying to the bottle, "It's okay now, you're home safe" as we were unpacking. WTF?!).

Because it was raining so hard, we couldn't really enjoy the outdoors too much, which was a shame, because the views of the vineyards were stunning and the cherry blossoms were out in full force.

By the time 7 p.m. rolled around for our dinner reservation at Hostellerie de Plaisance (also booked from the comfort of my own someone else's bed), we couldn't wait to dry ourselves off in the restaurant. Luckily, we were immediately welcomed and ushered into the bar, where I somehow heard myself ordering a glass of champagne (it had become automatic now - I no longer had control of my own voice) and we were presented with this beautiful, carrot-themed amuse bouche:

I always get nervous when I'm in charge of booking something - like a restaurant or a hotel. That's why I try to avoid doing it if at all possible and leaving it up to John. I can't bear to be responsible for a disappointing meal or stay. Anyone else with me on this? 

But our dinner at Hostellerie de Plaisance was exquisite; so much so, that it very nearly brought me to tears. I don't know if it was a reaction to the wines the sommelier had selected or because of the headiness of a 3-course meal turned 9 (there was the amuse bouche, the pre-starter, then the starter, then the main course, inexplicably a second main course, the pre-dessert, the dessert, the petit fours) or the fact that they wheeled out a glinting trolley of herbs in pots after dinner and asked me to select something for my hot drink before inviting me back to the bar for chocolates - I don't know. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above.

I couldn't hide my excitement as each plate was presented to us - since we had ordered the Menu "du Moment", we had no idea what to expect. It was all in the hands of the chef. Later, back in the bar, we were given a beautiful print-out of the menu on thick, heavy cardstock to take home as a souvenir, plus a choice of caramels, chocolates or nougat to go.

There were probably four other couples dining in the hotel restaurant that evening - all in their mid-60s, I'd say. I watched as they accepted the food with restrained, almost pinched expressions, not conveying any emotion except for a emphasized, "Trés bien, trés bien," when prompted by the staff.

But, in my typical American fashion, I couldn't hide my joy. I asked the sommelier for the names of the wines, which I loved, and when asked how we were enjoying our meal, I'm pretty sure I said something like, "This is the best meal I've ever had in my life." And meant it.

So, if you ever find yourself in Saint-Emilion, preferably on a warm summer's day, go to the Hostellerie de Plaisance. Head to the bar earlier than your reservation time. Ask the sommelier for his recommendation and sit outside on the verandah watching the sun set over the vineyards, sipping your glass of red or white.

That's what I'd like to do next.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Where to Buy What: The Best Places To Shop For Antiques In Bordeaux

John and I discovered rather late into our trip that Bordeaux is a treasure trove for antiques - and often at bargain prices. In fact, we vowed to bring an empty suitcase next time (and possibly even an empty van)! I fell in love with the beautiful furniture and decorative objects that we saw, like old French medicine bottles and cannisters, which often sold for something like €24 for an entire set. A whole set! Prices like that in London just don't exist.

From pop-up flea markets (great for vintage tableware like china and glass decanters) to never-ending shops filled to the brim with knick-knacks and furniture (perfect for side tables, chairs, and artwork) to stores specializing in authentic, high-end antiques (wonderful if you're missing a complete set of Versace dinnerware or a pair of oversized 17th-century porcelain vases), all of the fun is in the browsing. We almost ran from room to room in some of the larger shops, pointing at things and excitedly waving each other over to look at our newest discoveries.

Here are some of the best places to shop:

Chartrons district is excellent for antiques and cafe hopping - there are plenty of modern homeware boutiques tucked in next to antique shops, so you're likely to find hand-poured candles and Scandi-inspired design as you are an authentic Louis XIV side table.

We found a sweet little wooden stool at Cabanes et Chateaux on Rue Notre Dame - a ramshackle shop with the most beautiful furniture and findings, blasting classical music at the highest volume. I fell in love with nearly every single item in the store, but we only had room for that tiny stool (as seen in our second guest bedroom below, next to a poster we picked up at the Arcachon tourism office). Next time.

Village Notre-Dame (also in Chartrons and often simply referred to as "Le Village") is somewhat of an institution and should be browsed if only for the wow-factor. It specialises in upscale antiques but you're left to browse the many rooms and corners without any interruption (though I was incredibly paranoid about knocking into a £5,000 vase and kept having to tell John to, "Watch out! Behind you!"). I squealed with excitement over the perfect rug for our living room and John said, "Okay, you can get it." Then I lifted up the corner to find the price: €7,500. John gulped and said, "Okay, you can't get it." I was like, "Maybe it's a mistake ... maybe there's just one too many zeros ..." Nope. Not a mistake - still €7,500. I bade it a sad farewell and made my way to the exit.

Sidenote: the streets of Chartrons also have some of the most beautiful doors I've ever seen! Case in point:

Might have snapped a few pics of those.

Heading up toward Place des Capucins, Les Brocanteurs du Passage Saint Michel was our favorite of all the antique shops. We loved nearly everything they stocked and the staff was so nice. John fell in love with two oversized antique maps (we chose maps of the US and UK, naturally) which he puzzled over in French with one of the sales assistants about transporting it back to the UK. I didn't catch a lot of the conversation, but at the mention of "British Airways" there was a lot of nodding and affirmative gesticulation and teeth sucking and shrugging when "Easy Jet" was uttered. In the end, the wonderful lady who helped us actually ran from stall to stall outside the store to find a box, which she then fashioned into a long, protective tube for the maps. We were so grateful. I stuck a few homemade "Fragile" signs to the box and the maps arrived back in one piece: intact and unharmed.

They've got a wonderful Wes Anderson feel to them (they remind me of Moonrise Kingdom - one of my favorite Wes Anderson films!) and we've put them up in the guest bedrooms.

The flea market of Quai de Salinieres, which is just a short distance from the Marche Des Capucins (the most wonderful food market) is fantastic for finding hidden treasures - if you're prepared to look. Amongst the bric-a-brac and tatty old shoes, you'll also find beautiful vintage keepsake boxes, glass decanters, and art prints (like the ones I bought above). Sellers are most likely prepared to bargain (though I took the lot of prints for €15 because I was too lazy to barter) and if you're looking for vintage plates or other decorative objects for your home at a fraction of the price of what you'd find in, say, Broadway Market, then this is the perfect place to go.

Are you a fan of antiques? I think it's fun to look even if you're not intending to buy anything - it's incredible to think of the history behind some of the things you see!

Monday, April 25, 2016

5 Delicious Places to Drink & Dine At in Bordeaux

I had a sort of gastronomic awakening in Bordeaux - if that's what you'd call it. A foodie revelation. I ate steak cooked (much) rarer than my usual liking, slurped oysters in their shells (which I used to love, then went off of for about six years), and drank eye-wateringly expensive wine - all things I'd previously been a little uncomfortable with but thought, hey, YOLO. And I loved it all.

Life's too short. And Bordeaux's the perfect place to have this type of awakening. I seriously just felt like I finally came to my senses - literally. The produce is fresh, vibrant, and plentiful. Even the garlic smells and tastes different (i.e. fragrant, with an added dimension that I couldn't put my finger on). The fennel I cut open back at our Airbnb apartment scented the entire kitchen. The tomatoes were deep red: sweet and juicy. I returned to London with a heavy sense of disappointment over the limp, anemic-looking lettuce lining the shelves of Tesco; the same food trends being recycled over and over again.

Don't get me wrong: Bordeaux does experimental too (and the Michelin-dining is exquisite - I'll write about that in another post), but a part of me can't help but think that when you strip things back down to the basics, Bordeaux wins. You'll see what I mean as this post continues below.

So, although we only grazed the very tip of the Bordeaux food scene, here were five places we discovered during the week we were there for delicious food and wine:

After scoping out the wonderful antiques in Bordeaux's Chartrons district, we stumbled into El Nacional - and what a delightful accident it was. Humming with locals, businessmen, and a handful of tourists (us, plus the American badass lady solo dining to our right), El Nacional boasts an Argentinian chef, a selection of 200 wines, and damn good food.

John ordered the formules du midi, which included steak with chimichurri sauce (a concoction that made your palate go zing!), crispy french fries, a glass of wine and a coffee. I was feeling less hungry that day but had a craving for calamari, which came pan fried (not battered!) and exquisitely seasoned with garlic and chilli. Funny story: the power went out in the entire square during our meal, so all the lights went off and the kitchen went into a bit of a panic! Because their coffee machine wouldn't work, we were presented with these homemade chocolate-chip cookies with a caramel filling instead. I *so* wish I could have taken a box home with me. They were outstanding.

Whenever I'm in France, I try to find the best boulangerie in town - one that's worth dragging my lazy butt out of bed for at 7 a.m. to get the best pick of the fresh-out-of-the-oven croissants and pain au chocolats. Naturally, I Googled, "best bakeries in Bordeaux" and found La Fabrique Pains et Bricoles at the top of the list. The pain aux raisins were so fluffy and soft, I could have cried. I loved the sprinkling of sugar on top! We took them back to our Airbnb apartment and enjoyed them there with a cup of strong coffee with the balcony doors open - it felt so French!

When I asked for recommendations on Instagram, more than one person suggested Plume for brunch, which was just a quick 6-minute stroll from our Airbnb. It had just opened its doors when we arrived, so we were the first ones in. Despite this, brioche was off the menu (sad face) so we ordered the "Classic" breakfasts instead: fruit, bread, jam, butter, coffee and juice. Simple, but effective. French bread and pastries are the best. Even the butter tastes better in France!

After paying to escape a locked room at The Escape Hunt Bordeaux (most random but best hour of my LIFE!, we talked animatedly about all the clues we tried to solve en route to Marché Des Capucins, a covered food market that puts Borough Market to shame.

We immediately joined the line for Chez Jean-Mi, known for its seafood platters piled high with fresh oysters, sea snails, prawns, and crab claws. Clearly popular with locals, the open-air restaurant was filled to the brim by the time we arrived at 1 pm. Shells flew, oysters were slurped, and glasses of white wine were knocked back with abandon. It looked like so much fun!

After waiting for about 10 minutes or so, we were finally seated - cheek to jowl with the next table, but we didn't mind. It was all a part of the experience. We ordered the seafood platter for two and tackled the crab claws and oysters with the joie de vivre of two people who seemed to have waited their whole lives for this foodie-tastic moment ... it was nothing short of exhilarating and fun.

In the evening, we headed to the cheesy-but-aptly-named Wine More Time on Rue Saint James for champagne, cheese, and - for me - sweet wine. The outdoor seating was perfect for people watching (so many cool people whizzing past on bikes) but the indoor tables had a great vibe as well.

The staff was super friendly and happy to make recommendations when asked. On our last night in Bordeaux, we cooked a simple dinner at home after buying a delicious rotisserie chicken from Marche des Capucins and headed back out to Wine More Time for a final hurrah. We stayed late into the evening sipping wine and talking about everything under the sun ... it was so lovely to have a date night like that!

Last night, we watched Rick Stein's 'Long Weekend' series on BBC, which started in Bordeaux, and we already can't wait to go back to try the restaurants he mentioned. The best thing is that a long weekend is totally possible, with Bordeaux being only an hour and a half away from London by plane.

Looking into tickets right now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Climbing The Tallest Sand Dune In Europe: Dune Du Pilat, Arcachon Bay

Just an hour's drive outside of Bordeaux is the Dune du Pilat - Europe's tallest sand dune.

Random? Perhaps. Amazing? Totally.

When we arrived to Bordeaux city center, the sunny skies we'd previously enjoyed at Les Sources de Caudalie had turned grey and stormy. Half of the restaurants and shops were closed, which, to my Angloyankophile sentiments, seemed arbitrary for a Tuesday afternoon.

By the time the sun began to appear above the clouds, we'd spent hours traipsing around deserted streets, clearly in the "wrong" part of town (having wanted to get off the beaten path a bit). I was both tired and grumpy.

"Let's drive to Arcachon and make the most of the weather," John suggested, and I readily complied, knowing that a trip to the seaside would lift my spirits.

And - oh my goodness. It was fantastic.

The climb up the dune is steep: most people took the stairs (including me) but John insisted on scrambling up the sides (because he's sporty and over-enthusiastic that way).

At the top, we were met with a breathtaking view of the forest to our left, the sand encroaching on path of the trees. To our right was an equally, if not more, spectacular view of Arcachon Bay: all turquoise water, blue skies, and white sand.

Despite the wind whipping at our ankles and necks, we unlaced our shoes and trekked across the dune barefoot, nearly all 2.7 km of it. It wasn't overly crowded when we went, though most visitors stuck to the area near the steps, sharing picnic lunches and enjoying the views on either side of the dune.

Paragliders sailed past, their colorful canopies weaving a brilliant trail against the backdrop of the sand and the sea. 

I chased John as he ran down to the water, smiling at the families who held hands and roared with laughter as they made their way down too. We inspected each jellyfish that had washed onto shore, with John saying, "Take a picture of this one! No, this one! Oh my gosh, that one looks like a skull! Crazy!"

The climb back up was hard. Every time I looked up, the people standing above me near the stairs looked like tiny ants. I felt like I'd barely moved. So, I stopped looking up. I focused on keeping my head down, stepping into footprints left by their previous owners. Every so often, I'd rest, looking back and marvelling at my progress (John was far ahead of me, of course).

Finally, we made it to the top again, before heading back down to the car - John as sprightly and energetic as ever, and me wanting to die slightly.

But I don't think I'll ever forget that view or the feelings and emotions I felt surveying the vista of the bay before me: it was one of the most magical sights I'd ever seen.

Have you been to Arcachon or Dune du Pilat? What did you think?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ultimate Rest and Relaxation: Les Sources De Caudalie, Bordeaux

I arrived to Les Sources de Caudalie in Bordeaux with a cold. Not a chills and fever kind of cold, but the pervasive, underlying type of cold that makes you feel run-down and tired for a couple of weeks - just enough to be annoying. Plus, it was raining. So, in addition to having a cold, I was actually cold.

But shortly after checking into our room (despite arriving four hours before the official check-in time), there was a knock at our door and we were presented with a plate of sweet, ripe grapes - freshly picked from the hotel's grounds. I began to feel better.

I flung open the windows directly facing the bath and took a long, hot shower, letting the steam float out into the cool air. I watched as the sky turned from grey to blue and yelped with excitement over the Caudalie bath products and skincare samples, having been a fan of the brand for such a long time.

Afterwards, we walked the short distance to the beautiful indoor pool and relished the silence (it was empty) and the water's warm temperature. I swam a few lengths before noticing that my stuffy nose had nearly cleared completely - all within a few hours of landing in Bordeaux.

The fresh produce cultivated on-site became a reoccuring theme to our stay at Les Sources de Caudalie. Walking amongst the damp grass in the gardens, we found healthy, gleaming heads of lettuce, herbs marked in French with chalkboard signs, and rhubarb sprouting prettily from the soil.

I marvelled at the gorgeous flowers that just peeped over the garden's low hedges: dozens of colorful poppies, tulips, and daisies bobbed their heads along to the breeze. It seemed like a fairytale, and felt like one too.

That night, in the hotel's farmhouse-inspired bistro, La Table du Lavoir, I ordered the beetroot salad and admired the tri-colored beetroots on my plate. I savoured every garnish knowing that it had been freshly picked from the same garden I walked past every morning.

The next morning, we borrowed bikes from the hotel reception (no locks, no taking down names - just pull them out of the bike rack and go) and cycled amongst the vineyards, breathing in the country air. "Isn't this incredible?" John shouted to me over the wind as I gripped my handlebars tightly. A dog the size of a small cow with a lion's mane stepped into our path and panted gently as he trod next to us, guarding the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.

For lunch, we treated ourselves to La Grand Vigne's 5-course tasting menu, where John fell in love with a bottle of Chateau D'Yquem 'Ygrec' 2014 and I rekindled my relationship with oysters on the half-shell.

It was so delightfully sunny outside, we took our desserts and petit fours outdoors and enjoyed the hours before our tour of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte as slowly as possible. Hardly any other guests were around, so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves!

In the end, no one else turned up to the tour at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, so we had a lovely, private view of the premises where we marvelled at the oak barrels made on-site (the workshop smelled amazing) and the incredible wine cellars. Each year, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte produces 10,000 cases of red wine and 3,000 cases of white wine, plus a further 5,500 cases of their "second" wines, Les Hauts de Smith and Le Petit Haut Lafitte for export.

After the tasting, we arrived back to our room, still full from our earlier, delicious two-Michelin starred meal. We decided to take a nap and woke to the sounds of frogs having an animated conversation outside our balcony. The sky was completely dark. We dozily ordered room service around 9 p.m. and promptly fell asleep again before asking for our tray to be taken away. I was getting used to this slow living business.

By the time we left Les Sources de Caudalie, I felt like I could ... breathe again. Both metaphorically and literally. The cold I'd brought with me from London had completely disappeared, gently nudged out of my system by the incredible food we'd tried, copious number of naps I'd taken, and the daily laps in the pool.
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