Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Day with Sara in San Francisco (and a great recipe)

As I told you in my previous post, Sara is spending three months with our family in Northern California to learn English and help with grand kids. Sara is 19 years old, Italian, from Como Italy, on her first visit to the United States. Except for what she saw on the drive home from the Airport, Sara has not seen the sights of San Francisco.

This past Saturday, after several days of unseasonably cold weather for Northern California, sunshine and warmer weather were back. It was Shirley's day to work at the hospital and our kids and grand kids were busy with activities, I didn't have any place to be, so Sara and I went to see the famous sights of San Francisco.

I figure that many of you have never been to San Francisco or it's been a long time since you were there so I am sharing a few of the sights we saw. I know my blog is supposed to be about our life in Provence and visits to towns and villages, historical monuments and old ruins, wineries and restaurants we discover and occasionally share some recipes.

I feel blessed to have a house in Sablet, a small charming village in Provence and live near San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. In the South of France, we generally walk everywhere we go. During our visit to San Francisco, we traveled around town on foot, car, taxi and cable car. Maybe next time we will take a ferry too.

San Francisco (Spanish for "Saint Francis") was founded on June 29, 1776, when Spanish colonists established a fort at Golden Gate and a mission named for St. Francis of Assisi a few miles away. The 1849 California Gold Rush brought rapid growth, making it the largest city on the West Coast at the time.

Three-fourths of San Francisco was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire. During World War II, San Francisco was the port of departure for service members shipping out to fight the war in the Pacific Theater. Today, San Francisco is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and renowned for its cool summers, fog, steep hills, and landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars, Alcatraz Island, and Chinatown.

The City of San Francisco

Fisherman's Wharf gets its name and neighborhood characteristics from the city's early days during the Gold Rush when Italian immigrant fishermen settled in the area and fished for Dungeness crab. If you have not had roasted Dungeness crab dipped in melted butter, then you have missed out on one of the most tasty delicacies you can imagine. From the Gold Rush until the present day, Fisherman's Wharf remains the home for San Francisco's fishing fleet.

The well known symbol for Fisherman's Wharf.

San Francisco has been served by ferries of all types for over 175 years. John Reed established a sailboat ferry service in 1826. Although the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge led to the decline in the importance of ferries, some are still in use today for both commuters and tourists.

One of the ferry terminals at Fisherman's Wharf.

California Sea Lions have always been present in San Francisco Bay but they began to haul out on the docks in September 1989 shortly before the Loma Prieta earthquake. The population of sea lions at Pier 39 fluctuates dramatically, as many as 1701 of these animals, weighing up to 1/2 ton each have been officially reported on the docks at one time.

Some of the California Sea Lion population at Pier 39.

Alcatraz Island is located in San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles offshore from San Francisco. Often referred to as "The Rock," the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison (1868), and a federal prison from 1933 until 1963. Today, the island's facilities are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open for tours.

Alcatraz Island

The San Francisco cable car system is the world's last manually operated cable car system. An icon of San Francisco, the cable car system forms part of the transport network operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, or "Muni" as it is better known.

Of the twenty-three lines established between 1873 and 1890, three remain in service today. The cable cars are the only mobile National Monument in the world and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A cable car at the turn-around at Market and Powell Streets. 

Lombard Street is famous for a one-way section of the street on Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets where there are eight sharp turns (or switchbacks) that have earned the street the distinction of being the crookedest (most winding) street in the world.

The switchback's design, first suggested by property owner Carl Henry and instituted in 1922, was born out of necessity in order to reduce the hill's natural 27% grade, which was too steep for most vehicles.

Looking up Lombard Street.

Coit Tower, also known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, is a 210-foot (64 m) tower in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. The tower was built in 1933 using Lillie Hitchcock Coit's bequest to beautify the city of San Francisco.

The art deco tower, built of unpainted reinforced concrete, was designed by architects Arthur Brown, Jr. and Henry Howard, with fresco murals by 27 different on-site artists plus two additional paintings installed after creation off-site.

Coit Tower

The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge 4,200 feet (1,280.2m) long and 746 feet (227m) above the water spanning Golden Gate, the opening of San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean. As part of both U.S. Route 101 and California State Route 1, the structure links San Francisco, on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County.

Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County.

Construction of the bridge began on January 5, 1933 and was finished on April 19, 1937 at a cost of more than $35 million, but $1.3 million under budget, something unheard of for a public project today. Today, 110,000 vehicles cross the Golden Gate Bridge on a daily basis.

Golden Gate Bridge

Back at home after our visit to San Francisco, I set about to make dinner for Shirley who would be hungry after working a twelve hour shift. As I told you here, my 2013 cooking challenge is to try 52 new recipes out of different cookbooks. January has not ended and I have cheated already, but it was so worth it.

A few weeks ago, January 9, to be exact, there was a recipe for fennel compote in the New York Times Dining section that took me to Provence and I wanted to try it. Mark Bittman who included the recipe in his column said to serve it as a side dish or top it with a portion of cooked fish. Shirley likes fish and I thought the compote would be a perfect accompaniment for sauteed Petrale sole.

My mise-en-place for my fennel compote including rosé to sip while I cooked. 

Fennel Compote With Tomatoes, Olives and Fish (or Not)
Serves 4


1/4 cup good olive oil
1 bulb fennel (or two smaller ones), trimmed and chopped
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced garlic
6 plum tomatoes, chopped (canned are fine, but drain excess liquid)
1/2 cup big, plump olives, green or black or a combination, preferably unpitted
1/4 cup capers, optional
4 servings cooked fish, optional
1/2 cup chopped parsley leaves, for garnish


1. Put the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the fennel and some salt and pepper, and without browning (adjust the heat as necessary), cook it down, stirring occasionally, until it's quite soft, about 20 minutes. Add the thyme and garlic, and cook 1 minute, stirring.

2. Add the tomatoes, olives and capers, raise the heat a bit, and cook until the mixture is saucy, about 15 minutes. Serve as a side dish or top with a portion of cooked fish. Garnish with parsley.

The fennel compote is ready to be plated and topped with cooked fish.

As I said, I saw this recipe and it made me think of the foods we eat in Provence and it turned out to be even better than I thought it would. I used canned tomatoes, it is January, it would be better with those of summer, capers and unpitted olives as recommended by Mark Bittman as he says he believes the pits contribute a flavor that isn’t there otherwise.

The dish will be just as wonderful as a side dish and it will be a regular feature on our family menu both here in Northern California and at our home in Provence. It might even make it onto the menu at our Bistro Des Copains. Stay tuned!

In the words of one of my favorite television chefs Jacques Pepin, "I wish you happy cooking." Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Day Around Lake Como Italy

After saying goodbye to Shirley's friends at Marseille Provence Airport, we headed toward Nice because we were going to spend a long weekend with our friends Dominic and Diane at their new home in Northern Italy near Lake Como.

We have been best friends since the late 70's when we lived outside of Washington DC and Dominic and I worked at the same community hospital. Although Dominic and I don't see eye to eye on everything, we became and remain to this day best friends. We have vacationed in Florida, Cabo San Lucas Mexico, California before we moved here and of course in Provence.

We were practically neighbors outside Washington DC and our families spent countless hours together. We consider them family and at my father's funeral, I introduced Dominic to my mother as "my brother from another mother." Not having heard that term before, a look of puzzlement/horror came over my mother's face because she thought I was telling her something about my father.

Dominic was born in Ethiopia, his parents were Italians from the small town of Fara San Martino in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. However, rather than buying a house near his home town, Dominic and Diane bought a home near Lake Como where his brother has lived for many years.

Lake Como lies between Milan and Switzerland with its southern tip about 40km north of Milan, about a six hour drive from Marseille Provence Airport. A historical note for history buffs, at the end of World War II, after passing through Como as he tried to escape to nearby Switzerland, Mussolini was captured and then shot by partisans in Giulino di Mezzegra, a small town on the north shores of Lake Como.

Besides the town of Como, there are a number of other small towns in Lombardi and in Switzerland which border Lake Como including Brunate which is where we headed on Saturday morning. The town overlooks Como, which lies on the shore of Lake Como some 500 meters (1,600 ft) below. Como and Brunate are linked by a narrow and steep road, and by the Como to Brunate funicular.

The Como–Brunate funicular is a funicular railway that connects the city of Como with the village of Brunate in Lombardy, Italy. The lower station for the funicular is adjacent to Lake Como north-east of the center of Como seen below.

The funicular was opened in 1894 and was originally operated using a steam engine. In 1911 the traction system was converted to use an electric motor. The line was refurbished in 1934/5 and again in 1951, when new cars were provided

The line is 1,084 meters (3,556 ft) long, of which the lower 130 metres (430 ft) are in tunnel. The remainder of the line is at or above ground level, with extensive views over the lake and city. The upper station is in the center of Brunate, with entrances and exits at both upper and lower levels.

Upon exiting the upper station after our ride up the funicular, we came upon Sant'Andrea Church. This picture shows one of the two facades on this church.

This picture shows facade number two of Sant'Andrea Church.

The next three pictures show some of the interior of Sant'Andrea Church.

I think it is a beautiful church.

Another view of the beautiful interior of Sant'Andrea Church,

The next few pictures are of sights we saw as we strolled around Brunate including this beautiful home.

There are quite a few beautiful homes in this village, most I am sure have great views over Lake Como and the town of Como.

Another one of the beautiful homes in Brunate.

My friend Dominic walks on down the road; thanks for waiting for me Dominic.

Most of the houses in Brunate are built on the edge of the hill so they have views over Lake Como.

There are a number of places on the road where you can see the views over Lake Como yourself.

On the left is Villa d'Este, originally Villa del Garovo, a renaissance patrician residence in the Italian town of Cernobbio on the shores of Lake Como. Both the villa and the 25-acre park which surrounds it have undergone significant changes since their sixteenth-century origins as a summer residence for the Cardinal of Como.

Today, with room rates averaging €1000 a night and top suites averaging €3500 per night, the villa is a luxury hotel for wealthy people.

The Madonna and child.

Shirley between our longtime friends Diane and Dominic. As you can see, we are very close.

Looking down the line on our return trip to Como; Lake Como can be seen below.

The view of the Duomo, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Como and the seat of the Bishop of Como.

The view across Lake Como from near the lower station toward the Duomo (Cathedral) of Como.

A beautiful home in Como that we passed as we walked around the town. It was mostly overcast so there was not a lot of blue sky.

A Como cafe.

The Broletto Arcade which is adjacent to the Duomo. Built in 1215 as the Town Hall, it was later used as a theater and communal archive, it is now used for exhibitions and public events.

A rooftop view of the Duomo.

The ornate northern door of the Duomo is called La Porta della Rana which translates as Door of the Frog. I can't seem to find the origin of that name.

Construction on the Duomo began in 1396 on the site of the previous Romanesque church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The façade was built in 1457, with a rose window and a portal flanked by two statues of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, natives of Como.

Construction was completed in 1770. It is commonly described as the last Gothic cathedral built in Italy. It has a Latin cross plan with three aisles, separated by pillars, and a Renaissance transept, with an imposing cupola over the crossing.

Houses on the hill across the lake from Como.

A Como street with cafes and shops.

A busy Como street.

Street musicians on a Como street.

I like this old balcony over a modern store.

A view down the street toward the Duomo.

Teatro Sociale is a theater in Como, designed by architect Giuseppe Cusi followng a decision by the local nobility that a new one was needed to replace the existing 1764/65 building which was regarded as outdated.

With its planned neo-classic façade, construction started in early 1812 and in spite of agreement for it to be finished that same year, construction problems ensued, largely the result of a bad winter. The following spring brought additional problems and added work so that the theater was not finished until August 1813.

After a relatively recent major remodeling, Teatro Sociale is a theater with 900 seats with five tiers.

As we left Como to return to their home, we had this view of the Duomo.

A lot has happened since our visit to Como just a couple of months ago. First while we were there, our friends told us about a young lady who lived in Como who dreamed of going to California to improve her English and said we should have her come and live with us and help our kids with our grandkids.

Sara, age 19, has just finished up her second week with us in California. She doesn't know as much English as we thought but she has picked up a lot in two weeks. We all have down loaded a translator app on our mobile phones so we can translate any words that we can't figure out so we are getting along very well.

Second, Diane and Dominic's daughter Jennifer and her husband Greg and baby Julia have put their lives in Maryland on hold and moved to the Lake Como area for a year to experience the culture and learn to speak Italian...they hope. As you can imagine, they are experiencing all kinds of new things and have started a blog called Sipping Espresso. If you are so inclined, you should hop over and check it out.

Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Aperitif, a Wonderful French Custom

One of my favorite French traditions is the aperitif. For the uninformed, aperitif is both a beverage and a social occasion, and a wonderful part of daily life in France. It is a national custom where time is set aside at the end of the day to share a drink and maybe a bite or two with family, friends, and colleagues, all the while engaged in conversation.

At home, seated around the kitchen table or in the living room, outdoors on terraces or balconies, family and friends come together to share an aperitif and conversation before dinner. At cafés, bars and restaurants, the same ritual takes place. In twos or threes, and in groups, people meet for an aperitif and conversation. It is a ritual where family, friends, and colleagues make the transition from the work day to the personal.

The French understand that to be invited to one's home or to invite someone to your house for an aperitif, is an invitation for thirty minutes to one hour or a little more for conversation, drinks, and some nibbles, generally salty. After the accepted interval has gone by, guests excuse themselves. An invitation to aperitif does not imply that a meal will follow or that one should anticipate enough hors d'oeuvres to make a meal.

In a restaurant, where you are going to have a meal, the aperitif or apéro for short, may be taken at the table. Whether the table is covered with starched white linen or sheet of paper, the first thing the server will say is: "Désirez-vous un apéritif?" (Do you want an aperitif?). When it arrives, it will likely be accompanied by a small plate of olives, nuts, or tapenade or something special prepared by the chef.

The traditional aperitif drinks can be roughly divided into three groups. The wine group includes still and sparkling wines, fortified wines and wine based mixtures. A second group consists of herb and spiced-based alcohols, pastis and Compari, for example, that are usually diluted with water. The third is fruit based and may or may not contain alcohol.

An aperitif by definition (It's a French word derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means “to open.”) is a prelude to dinner, so the "bites" of food that accompany drinks should be tantalizers to the taste buds, preparing them for the meal to come. Generally, the accompaniments are bite-sized finger foods that can be eaten with your hands.

Salty foods are popular - olives, nuts, cornichons and radishes with butter and salt. Spreads made from olives, eggplants, pâté or salt cod and served on toasts or in puff pastry are common. We have also been served saucisson (dry sausages), apero-sized goat cheese marinated in herb-infused olive oil, and tiny clams, known as tellines which are eaten one by one - finger licking good.

Here are pictures of "bites" we served with drinks for friends who came for aperitif at our house in Provence and in Northern California. The first is Sablet, when the weather was chilly and we set up in our cozy seating area in front of the fireplace. We served clusters of cherry tomatoes, two kinds of olives, eggplant caviar (I have shared this recipe before here), and white bean brandade with slices of toasted baguettes.

This gathering was also in Sablet but out on the kitchen terrace on a beautiful warm evening in Provence. We served eggplant caviar with slices of toasted baguettes, radishes with Camargue sea salt, two kinds of olives, saucisson, and goat cheese-stuffed cherry tomatoes. We also offered rosé wine from Tavel, white wine from Cassis, pastis and on this occasion, although not typically offered, vodka for one of our guests who we knew likes a cocktail for aperitif.

This gathering was in Northern California where we set up on a counter in the kitchen because everyone hangs out there when they are at the house. We served a mixture of marinated olives, radishes, cornichons, bibeleskaes (a fromage blanc recipe from Alsace we got from L'Auberge Chez Francois, a favorite restaurant outside Washington DC), and eggplant tapenade with a variety of crackers.

As I told you here, my 2013 cooking challenge is to try 52 new recipes out of different cookbooks. So although we love the eggplant caviar recipe we got from our friend Bruce in Villedieu, I decided to make an eggplant tapenade from "The Bistros, Brasseries and Wine Bars of Paris" cookbook by Daniel Young.

This recipe comes from Juveniles, a wine bar in Paris 1st arrondisement where they serve this tasty tapenade as their house dip. This is very good to serve with toasted baguette slices or crackers with aperitif.

Eggplant Tapenade
Makes 2 Cups


1 large eggplant about 1 pound
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted black olives
2 teaspoons drained capers
1/2 teaspoon piment d'Espelette, ancho powder or other medium-hot chili powder, optional
Freshly ground black pepper


1. Pre-heat oven to 375F (190C). Split the eggplant in two vertically. Brush both halves with the olive oil and score the eggplant with a sharp knife. Place on a baking sheet and roast in oven until golden in color and soft, 40 to 50 minutes.

2. Scoop out the roasted eggplant into a food processor, add the sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, capers, 1/3 cup olive oil, piment d'Espelette, and a few grinds of black pepper. Puree to a paste, about 30 seconds. Taste the puree and correct for seasoning.

In the words of one of my favorite television chefs Jacques Pepin, "I wish you happy cooking." Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.