Travels

US Roadtrip Highlights, Part II

Roadtrip

[You may want to read Part I first.]

Before I proceed with the second installment of notes from my roadtrip, I would like to respond to a question posted by Robin: how did we choose our food stops? The overall theme for this vacation was “improvisation” — no planned route, no schedule, just us, a car blissfully equipped with cruise control, and a Michelin road atlas — and this made it difficult to visit any of the fancier, reservations-needed establishments. Luckily this was the whole point, and even when we happened upon such a place and it seemed to have room to accommodate us, we would just look at the curlicued menu, the candles, the freshly ironed tablecloths, exchange a glance, and hop back into the car to search for something more basic, with less chichi and more ketchup.

The places we ended up going to were a happy mix of:
~ Guidebook recommendations. We used the Roadfood guide and the Lonely Planet guide to the US. The former is excellent (and not just because the Sterns and I share the same editor and publisher); the latter we do not recommend. Save for a few exceptions, the restaurants they mentioned were either not tempting enough for us to look for them, or disappointing when we did — perhaps we just don’t share the authors’ tastes.
~ Serendipitous finds. An impressively speedy nerve connection seems to establish itself between the empty stomach, the eye, and the hand holding the steering wheel, and we had some of our best meals on such occasions.
~ Dining tips shared by people we met on the road, and advice from C&Z readers. There wasn’t nearly enough time (or meals) to check out even a fraction of these places, but I do want to thank those of you who took the time to share your favorites. I am certainly keeping these recommendations for another time.

And now, on to the notes…

- If you buy pecan pralines in Cajun country — 3-inch-wide disks of super-sweet pecan goodness that crumbles and melts on your tongue — you should definitely taste them before you get home. That way you’ll know you should have bought much, much more.

- You won’t regret spending a bit of time in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, one of our favorite spots of the whole trip. Walking around the pretty downtown, having an iced coffee at the Coffee Break, buying an old cake stand or a rusty roadsign from one of the American antique stores, then taking a boat tour of the swamps on Lake Martin to see the cypresses and the birds. Having dinner at Café des Amis (don’t miss their gâteau sirop, drippy with cane syrup and studded with pecans) and a drink at Mulate’s, to listen to the live Cajun band and marvel at the thousands of business cards pinned to the ceiling. Staying in one of the quaintly decorated Bayou Cabins (ours was called Miss Elise), indulging in fresh beignets for breakfast (closer to bugnes from Lyon than donuts), drinking your morning coffee on your very own back porch overlooking the Bayou Teche, and not forgetting your complimentary Cajun platter when you leave. Homemade boudin, cracklin (fried pork skin), and spicy headcheese — that should take care of lunch.

- When you rent a car, do check that there is not only a spare tire, but also a jack in the trunk. That will prove quite useful when you have a flat in the middle of nowhere, as there won’t always be a 70-year-old aligator hunter to lend you a hand and a jack.

- You might think you’re doing the reasonable thing by ordering a grilled chicken po’boy, but once you take a bite of your travelling companion’s variation, stuffed with extra-large fried oysters, you will sorely regret your choice (Le Café, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana).

- Perhaps I am the last one to be let in on this, but Mexican eateries make sandwiches called tortas, and the combo of avocado and chile rellenos (roasted peppers stuffed with cheese and fried) is a glorious filling for them (Tacos & Salsa in Alamogordo, New Mexico — their shredded beef tacos were just as splendid).

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US Roadtrip Highlights, Part I

Roadtrip

Maxence and I are back from our roadtrip across the US — still a bit jetlagged, but extremely pleased with how it went. 4,952 miles driven in 17 days through 7 states: in order of appearance, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Stupendous landscapes, extremely kind people along the way (except for that one tattooed psycho in a pick-up truck, but that was fun in retrospect), fabulous roadfood, all the ingredients were there to make our vacation precisely the kind of adventure-filled trip we were hoping for.

So, how does one write up such a journey, where does one begin? I could of course transcribe my moleskine notes here, but even I can’t quite make out what I wrote in some places, so I will just go with a collection of thoughts from the road and the table.

- Feed me a burger a day and I’m a happy girl. I didn’t eat a burger a day because quirkier food specialties beckoned, but I would have otherwise, and still managed to gobble up six of them — about six times more than I normally do in a year.

- Put jalapeño in anything and I’ll order it. Especially if it’s a burger, and especially if they add bacon so you can call it breakfast (Tecolote Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico).

- Put crawfish in anything and I’ll order it. Driving through Louisiana, I thought I might just turn into one. I would have become the world’s first crawfish who blogs.

- Fresh boiled peanuts are good. They burn the tips of your fingers if you’re sitting on the passenger seat and are hence the appointed boiled peanut peeler, but their flavor, which comes closer to that of edamame (green soybeans) than that of dry roasted peanuts, will make it worth your while. We got ours from a roadside stand in Florida, where the lady’s eyes clouded with worry when we told her about the trip we were taking: she warned us against the many dangers of the road ahead (bandit hitch-hikers in particular) and gave us perfectly ripe Georgia peaches that made our hands smell like cotton candy afterwards.

- Ice-cream always tastes better if someone crushes good stuff into it (say, cookie dough, peanut butter cups, Oreo cookies, or mini-marshmallows) on a cold stone while dancing to disco music (Amy’s ice-cream, Austin, Texas).

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San Francisco Get-Together: A Reminder

Left Turn Signal

We are still on the road — somewhere between Texas and California — but I wanted to remind you about the C&Z get-together in San Francisco this Monday. Here are the details, I hope you can join us!

When? Monday, July 10th.
Where? Place Pigalle in San Francisco, located at 520 Hayes Street (@ Octavia).
What time? We will be there from 7pm.

[Important note: The initial plan was to meet in Palo Alto, but the location has been changed to SF.]

A Roadtrip and a Get-Together

Maxence and I are leaving for a vacation: we are flying from Paris to Miami, where we will rent a car, drive all the way across the US, and fly back home from San Francisco. Roadtrips are by far our favorite mode of travel, we’ve been wanting to take that one for years, and now is finally the time!

No itinerary has been defined, it will all be day-to-day decisions relying on the direction of the wind, recommendations gleaned along the way, our brick-like guidebook to the US and, of course, the roadfood bible.

There is no telling where we will be on any given day until we reach our final destination, but if you are in the San Francisco area, I would like to invite you to come and have a drink with us on the evening of Monday, July 10th starting from 7pm at the bar Place Pigalle in San Francisco (520 Hayes Street, at Octavia). I hope you can join us, and I’ll look forward to meeting you!

In the meantime, check back next week for something a little different from what I usually do on C&Z. It is called Seven Breakfasts.

Ham from Aldudes Valley

Jambon des Aldudes

[Ham from the Aldudes Valley]

In the galaxy of first-class hams, this one most definitely deserves its place. It is made by 60 producers in the beautiful valley of Les Aldudes in the Pays Basque, from a specific breed of pig called le porc basque.

This pig, which sports a pretty pink and black outfit, almost didn’t make it through the twentieth century: from 140,000 individuals in 1929, the headcount had dwindled down to a dramatic twenty by 1981, when the species was officially declared endangered by the French ministry of agriculture.

A few years later, a group of farmers from Les Aldudes, led by Pierre Oteiza, decided to save the basque pig from oblivion and return to traditional methods of breeding and salting. Their action gradually raised the number of pigs and sows, more farmers joined the cause, and in 1995 the porc basque was officially declared out of the woods.

This is just a manner of speaking because the basque pig is in fact destined to spend most of its life up in the mountain forests, where it feeds on grass, roots and the dried fruits that fall from the trees — chestnuts, acorns and beech nuts (faîne in French, which I’m sure you’ll be as happy to learn as I was) — in addition to a mix of non-GMO grains delivered to the herd daily. At 12 to 14 months, the pigs are taken back down to the valley for a somewhat less pleasant episode, which I won’t expand upon.

Their legs and shoulders are then salted with natural salt harvested around Bayonne (200 million years ago this area was beneath sea level), rubbed with pepper, exposed to the mountain winds to dry, and aged for 12 to 16 months.

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