francophile-ing away the memories: the massif central and grenoble

When we left Paris, we rented a chic Citroën C4 Picasso minivan, or as they would call it in Europe, a compact multi-purpose vehicle. It was standard transmission and diesel, and Eli enjoyed driving it so much that we were scheming ways to sneak a Citroën back into the US with us when we returned home.

We headed straight south for the Massif Central, as we had only three days before we would be dropping our MPV off in Grenoble. We limited our time in the Massif Central to the Auvergne region, given that it was time that was limiting us. Upon arrival in the mountains, it was rainy and foggy and we couldn’t really see much of anything. We skipped ascending the Puy de Dôme, since there clearly wouldn’t be much gained by doing that. Just south of the town of Le Mont-Dore, we got a bit lost as Google had tried routing us to the top of the Puy de Sancy, but although we tried our best, there was no driving up a ski mountain.

Our next attempt netted us a big-time winner. Our cycling book recommended trying the cheese in the nearby town of Besse. So try the cheese we did. We bought half a wheel of Saint-Nectaire, and ate it in only two sittings, I think. Maybe three. As Wikipedia affirms, “the cheese can go along with any kind of meal.” Truth.

France for me was all about the cheese. I think Eli would agree with me that it was one of the highlights of our trip. With practically every small village having their own specialty or take on the regional cheese, we could easily spend the rest of our lives in pursuit of trying them all. That would be an honorable pursuit.

By the time we found ourselves a stopping place for the night, several kilometers down the road and many calories of cheese down the hatch, the skies had pretty well cleared. This set us up nicely the next day for a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside from the summit of the Puy Mary. While we saw many cyclists suffering their way to the top of the Pas de Peyrol, we took the easy option of the car, before breezing past the hordes of similarly car-bound tourists struggling up the ten minute quick sprint to the top of the Puy Mary.

At the top, we ate our favorite junk food of the trip, Belgix sugar waffles. We had first heard about sugar, or liège, waffles on a Sporkful podcast, and were elated to find them at Lidl stores across Germany and France. As I sit and type about them I’m finding myself craving them more strongly than I was craving mac n cheese on our return to the States. I’ve been lucky to not really have any cravings (other than all the usual ones) during my pregnancy, and this is more of a sign that it’s tea time for me at the moment, but damn, I could really go for a sugar waffle right now — or a whole pack of eight. One day soon I’ll have to make them here at home. Meanwhile, I’ll eat five seven Biscoff cookies.

We took the scenic route on the way over to Grenoble, passing through farm country and lots of sunny small towns, including the fascinating Le Puy-en-Velay, shown above with the perched chapel. We didn’t take the time to stop and sightsee, although I wish we had. At least the internet can teach me that this chapel-on-a-rock is Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, built on a volcanic plug 280 feet tall way back in 969 AD. Of all the towns we passed through on our trip, Le Puy-en-Velay may have been the most scenic, though this in part may have been due to it being so unexpected a sight. If a town wasn’t listed in our cycling book, chances were we knew absolutely nothing about it. Which made for a lot of wonderful discoveries.

And just like that, our brief time in the MPV was over, we had reached Grenoble, and it was time to split up.

Eli had been planning a solo overnight endeavor into the Alps for some time, using a route from our cycling book that ventured across several of the classic climbs from the Tour de France. He set out without the majority of his gear, so while he must have felt like he was flying, he was still a heavyweight on his steel bike compared to the endless parade of gram-shaving carbon aficionados that he saw on his two-day trek.

I remember hearing about how dirty Grenoble was when I lived in France in 2007. I think that descriptor is appropriate, as much of the city did seem pretty grimy. But Grenoble is more than that. It was in a really beautiful location, a basin with breathtaking mountainous views in nearly every direction. It takes mere minutes to hike up and out of the busy town on the north side of the Isère River, with continued climbing quickly being rewarded with beautiful views, ramparts, a fort, and caves – the Grottes de Mandrin shown below.

Eli wasn’t the only one to go for a solo bike jaunt. I embarked on what I dubbed Baby’s First Bike Ride, because even though it was too soon to confirm my pregnancy, I KNEW. Or at least, I strongly suspected. Or at the very least, I hoped. But I knew.

I headed north from town into the Chartreuse Natural Regional Park, and tried to stick to a grueling (for me) pace as I climbed for what felt like forever to the summit of the Col de Porte, which has also been a featured climbing stage of the Tour de France, and should not be confused with the Col de Port in the Pyrenees (another Tour stage… which we later climbed – stay tuned). It was so freeing to bike without being loaded down with my gear, but after all that saddle time with the extra weight, it was also strange and I felt somewhat wobbly.

Waiting for me at the top of the Col de Porte was a very welcome restaurant, and I fell hard for a big plate of fish and chips, and even harder for the two baskets of bread that I also consumed. Cans of Coca Cola were a frequent splurge for us in the mid-to-late summer stage of our bike tour, and my ability to drink so much of it surprised me given that I had always despised Coke. No longer.

My downhill return to Grenoble was a blast, and I cruised as comfortably fast as I would allow myself. After all, I was cycling for two now, and I had to at least be a little bit thoughtful. No more crashes.

So while I was having fun, Eli was having a blast. While the scenery I was experiencing was really pretty, his was jaw-dropping. Check out a few of the photos from his solo bike:

I did suffer a bit without him, though. I ate cheese with mustard for dinner. Cheese cut into triangles. Fancy!

Once reunited, we left Grenoble headed south and then west towards the lower part of the Massif Central, the Cévennes. On our way, we saw a gorgeous gorge, and lots and lots of walnuts. Walnuts and walnut oil are a staple crop of the Rhône-Alpes region, and I can confirm that they were especially delicious in a walnut tart that we savored along the way. Mmm, Baby’s First Walnut Tart.

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francophile-ing away the memories: paris

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We rolled through Paris at the start of last August. Throughout our bike trip, our most consistent navigational struggles (and wasted hours) involved finding our way into city centers from the countryside. There was either not enough signage – common – or too much signage – also common. So when it came to Paris, I wasn’t willing to waste half a day  getting frustrated trying to find our way into town. We took a train from the Champagne-Ardenne city of Reims, a very nice place with loads of delicious affordable champagne that is unusually hard to pronounce if you are a confused American (think Rance… or Reams if you’re British and don’t give a shit about how other cultures pronounce things).

Before Paris, we had finished up a quick jaunt that found us biking from Germany -> Luxembourg -> Belgium -> France in the space of a day or so, much of which was in the pouring rain. We had camped overnight in a weird wet forest in Belgium, after eating dinner in an overly-priced overly-fancy Chinese restaurant in Luxembourg, and failing to find a dry place to spend the night. While in the weird wet forest, our nightly tent entertainment of a Game of Thrones episode was interrupted by some dude walking by on the main road, intermittently yelling loudly. At us? We’ll never know. But it creeped me out.

Once in Paris, our prime objective was to dry out all our wet nasty gear. Luckily our cute little Airbnb, which faced the Église Saint-Sulpice in the 6th Arrondissement, had a washing machine and four functional windows that let us air out our clothes, our tent, our stinky shoes, our sleeping bags, and whatever else I’ve since forgotten about.
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I love Paris. I love the energy, and the Frenchiness, and all the delicious everything, the artwork, the general faded coloring of the buildings, the hordes of tourists who make it impossible to do anything if you show up somewhere after 9am. To be fair, we were there in August, busy tourist time. We had chosen to to arrive in France when we did to avoid potential Tour de France traffic, which can be crippling if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. But August is the month of vacations for everyone. While tourists flood into Paris, many Parisians make gallant escapes out of the city for much of the month. This means that of the beaucoup chocolate shops and renowned pâtisseries that I hoped to visit, most of the smaller ones were sadly closed.

François Pralus was wide open, so we visited and left with a Chuao chocolate bar and one of their famous pralulines – a buttery brioche studded with rose sugar-coated almond and hazelnut pralines. I was over the moon.



We visited the Catacombs of Paris, which I had tried to visit in a past life before iPhones and constant internet, and had shown up on the wrong day when they were closed. After waiting in a miserable line at the Eiffel Tower for 90 minutes without any sign of anyone being admitted (due I think to a suspicious package terror incident the day before), we abandoned ship and made our way to Catacombs, where a 2+ hour admittance line greeted us. I didn’t really mind the wait, I knew it would be worthwhile. Eli grabbed us some sandwiches from a Paul bakery across the street, and we chatted a bit with some friendly British women on holiday from London for the weekend who were next to us in the line.

And sure enough, the Catacombs were spectacular. If endless piles of artfully-placed human remains are your thing, plan a visit of your own. The climate in the tunnels makes for a nice change from a sunny August day, another perk.


Whether eating in or dining out, we ate so very well while in Paris. I couldn’t get enough of the charcuterie and soft cheeses, paired with fresh tomato and cucumber, olives, and quality french butter, and topped off with several bottles of bubbly that we had purchased in Reims, as well as the dregs of a bottle of peach liqueur from the Mosel River area in Germany.

We had our share of mini French coffees, giant salads, more baguettes, and more soft cheeses.

There was a Pierre Hermé shop mere blocks from our Airbnb, and I waited in a lengthy line there before interacting with a charismatic yet condescending employee who was frustrated that I needed two minutes to decide on the eight flavors of overpriced macarons that I wanted to try. Of the Fall-Winter 2016 collection, standouts included the Jasmine Flower & Jasmine Tea, Fresh Mint & Red Berries, Lemon & Flaky Hazelnut Praline, as well as their signature Salted-Butter Caramel. And yes, I kept the flavor card that they gave me with my purchase, so that I could accurately reference these tiny confections over half a year later.





Of all the fine dining, the highlight for me was dinner at Huguette, Bistro de la mer, a seafood restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, again just blocks from our Airbnb. We split a bottle of crisp white wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which apparently is now known as Occitanie (since the end of September 2016). We feasted on two varieties of oysters, as well as cockles, clams, and shrimp. It was an incredible, truly memorable meal.

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We did the art thing a bit too. We visited the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, primarily for the Impressionist paintings. It’s insane how cell phones have transformed art galleries. Everywhere we went, people were taking endless photos like the apocalypse was about to arrive, crowding each other and shoving their phones as far forward as they could to capture every masterpiece. I took a few pictures, mostly of the few I unexpectedly loved and the uglier paintings that made me laugh (see top painting, above).

When it was time to depart Paris, we rented a minivan, shoved our bikes and gear into the back, and ventured south towards the mountains, with the first stop being a stroll around the grounds of Fontainebleau. This last picture makes me smile, as I was so slim and fit, and I could still wear those pants, my favorite pair of Silver corduroys that have since bit the dust. We took one final wonderful memory away from Paris, which set the tone for the rest of our trip and largely explains why I fell off the radar and have failed to blog again until now. We conceived a child, a child which has since spent the better part of 2,000 miles riding along with me on a bicycle, has been sick with me on a dozen-plus ferry rides, has made a transatlantic flight back home, and is now seven weeks or so away from sprouting into a unique little lass of her own.

Paris je t’aime.

upside-down apple and prune plum spice cake + salted caramel sauce

It all started with a desire for salted caramel sauce, after going many months without it. To be truthful, though, I knew what I was going to make as soon as I saw these seasonal prune plums at my grocer. I harbor a desire to turn everything into an upside-down cake, with the apple spice cakes typical of autumn no exception.

Ordinarily these spice cakes are filled with apple chunks or applesauce, and are tasty, but are also mildly boring and relatively thoughtless to make.

This upside-down version of a spice cake (or a spice cake tatin, if you will) provides some extra built-in flavor, through the glorious layer of caramelized apples and prune plums. It packs a well-spiced punch as well, thanks to additions of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and Grand Marnier in the batter.

Bonus: it’s pretty to look at. Bonus 2: The spiced salted caramel sauce is a good substitute in life for anything edible. So delicious!

As I leisurely put together this caramel sauce and cake, I reflected on the last time I had tried my hand at an apple spice cake. I was living in France at the time. Memories sifted through my mind hazily.

I thought back to the glares I received from stylish French people when they saw me pairing Chacos with a bright yellow-green rain jacket. I remembered the time the yard of my apartment was torn apart by my landlady’s construction men in her effort to create a mini-empire of apartments. And then the subsequent time when two weeks of rain flooded the yard, and my roommate and I had to repeatedly make our way through a foot of water to get to our home.

I thought of the familiar sights I saw everyday during my bus commute. Of the smells of freshly-baked almond pastries. Of those teeny tiny cups of coffee. Of the funny short man I saw playing a saxophone that one time. Of all the neat things in my landlady’s backyard, and how her side of the house was very beautiful, while ours was frightening and falling to pieces. Of how I washed all my clothes by hand, because I was too shy to walk down the street to the laundromat. And of the scary mannequin that leered at me in Aigues-Mortes.

It was my time in France, back in 2007, that got me started taking pictures of my baking successes. Due to the sketchy gas oven in my apartment, and my lack of interest in food styling and proper lighting, everything that I documented then looked pretty much the same. But from the granola cake, to the kiwi cake, to this apple spice cake’s predecessor, I was hooked.

I do hope you’ll try this recipe out. It has enough deliciousness to equate to at least a few months of fond memories from time spent abroad – mannequin excluded.

Upside-Down Apple and Prune Plum Spice Cake {original recipe}

Serve with Spiced Salted Caramel Sauce (recipe follows)

I’ve mentioned before that I make my tartes tatins (and upside-down cakes) using a 10-inch cast iron skillet. It is an ideal pan for this cake, as there is no need to flip or disturb the apple plum layer until the cake has finished cooking. If you don’t have this size cast iron pan, you can heat the butter, sugar, apples and plums in a skillet, before transferring to a buttered and floured parchment-lined cake pan.

++Ingredients++

For the caramelized layer:

3 apples (I used McIntosh, they bake well), cored and sliced
5-10 prune plums, pitted and quartered
6 tbsp butter
2/3 c. brown sugar

For the cake batter:

1 c. rye flour
1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp + 2 tsp Grand Marnier
2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp cardamom
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. heavy cream

++Directions++

In a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, combine butter and brown sugar. Melt and mix. Arrange apple and plum slices as desired, and allow mixture to cook for two to three minutes, until caramel apple aromas waft up at you. Remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a medium bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer (or a large bowl equipped with a mixing implement and a strong arm), cream butter and brown sugar for two minutes.  Add eggs, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla, Grand Marnier, and all spices. Add flour mixture in two parts, alternating with the milk and heavy cream, beating at low speed.

Pour batter into cast iron skillet over apples and plums. Butter will rise up around the edges of the pan – don’t worry. Bake cake on center oven rack for 40-45 minutes until an inserted cake tester shows it has cooked through. Allow to cool in the pan for ten minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the skillet to free any adhering cake. Place a large plate on top of the skillet, upside down, and in one smooth motion, flip to turn out the cake onto the plate (you will likely need oven mitts as the cast iron will still be hot). If any fruit bits have stuck behind in the pan, return them to their rightful place on the cake

Cool cake until warm or to room temperature. Served with Spiced Salted Caramel Sauce.Store cake in fridge, well-wrapped, for up to three days.

Spiced Salted Caramel Sauce {original recipe}

Makes ~2 c.

++Ingredients++

1 c. sugar
6 tbsp butter
3/4 c. heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp brown sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamon

++Directions++

Pour sugar into a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Let sit until sugar melts, and begins turning a light amber color. Stir if necessary to break up any large chunks, but otherwise let it be. When the caramel has turned a medium amber (the darkness is up to you – you want to let it caramelize sufficiently without burning. Remember that it will continue to cook for a few seconds after it has been removed from the heat), add butter and stir until mixed. Add cream, salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, and cardamon, and stir. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Pour into a glass jar and cool completely. Cap and store in fridge or freezer.