The One-Star Restaurant Operatic Extravaganza

I’ve only been to three Michelin-starred restaurants in my life, and I didn’t pay for any of them.

The first one was in the south of France some 40 years ago. After having eaten one of everything, we placed the (possibly already full) credit card in a tastefully hollowed-out ancient book. To this day, the amount has never apeared on our credit card statement. The second one doesn’t really count, as I had booked the wrong restaurant and I don’t want to talk about it. And then there was last night in Geneva.

It was a gift, and in many ways it truly was. I saw and encountered several things that were entirely without precedent. It was sort of Cirque de Soleil on the table cloth.

The lights were dim, the pillows were plumped, the Christmas wooden soldier theme tastefully arranged and the spectacle was about to begin.

restaurant-dining-restaurant-bayview-by-michel-roth-hotel-president-wilson-a-luxury-collection-hotel-geneva-2We popped in the chou pastry tickle-your-mouths. We delved under the foam of the oceanic pre-starter to find fishy bits and chestnuts. I think.

The butter girl passed with three different flavours (regular, vanilla, and pepper) and then my main starter arrived. It was an artfully-created miniature village built with bits of fig on a round slice of foie gras. In the middle there was a fig-jam pond. The little houses had real golden roofs. There was a wall of paper-thin pink wafer that stood up, ineffectually protecting the little hamlet from the wicked fork and knife that were about to descend.

The nice young man came to brush up the crumbs from my freshly-baked brioche, and then the second starter arrived. It featured porcini mushrooms in all their possible forms. There are, perhaps, reasons why Mövenpick does not produce industrial mushroom ice-cream.

Before the main course the knife girl came around with a set of six knives. You had to choose your handle colour. I chose shocking pink to delicately cut my venison. But the real treat was the chef’s speciality—a hallucination-in-a-glass called cappuccino. It was a mixture of potatoes and white truffles with black truffle crumbs sprinkled on top.

The nice young man gently prised the empty cup out of my fist and promised more…

The first dessert (called “a moment of sweetness”) was rather a shock, as there was a slice of raw fruit involved. This was more than made up for, however, by the decomposed miniature lemon tarts. And the main dessert was a magnificent jellied puddle of orange tastefully holding together a slice of apple on a biscuit.

After the chocolates and the fruit jellies, we finally ended the evening back at home watching the Japanese sumo championships on TV—which seemed especially fascinating and relevant after having eaten an entire village on my plate.

The gargantuan worlds of ritual and magic are now behind us and we have landed softly back into our Geneva-countryside world of bread and jam, baked squash, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

I have, though, put gold foil on my shopping list.

The Cheery Charm of the Fall Fair

In these depressing days of Aleppo and Mosul and Donald, there is help at hand: the distraction of the fall fair.

Living in the Geneva countryside, you can choose your fair. There is, for example, the big Geneva Fall Fair (Les Automnales) coming up next month. Hundreds of stands will be set up inside Palexpo and you will be able to buy a house, a car, a dog, furniture and a swimming pool. You will be able to sign up for a kick-boxing and/or dancing classes and get a massage.

I have bought many lovely and useful things at this fair—an inlaid cow with a secret drawer, a camel blanket from Morocco, and a bracelet and headscarf from Palestine. It is an ideal place to do your Christmas shopping.

For the more rustic, there are the fall fairs over the border in France. The entry is free and after the danger and excitement of parallel parking on the mountainside main road you join the cider-drinking crowds. You buy roasted chestnuts and listen to the brass band playing on the town hall steps. They are dressed as clowns and one is proud to note that political humour is alive and well in France.

You closely examine the exhibitors’ stands. There are a couple of vans up from Aosta, Italy, selling copper pans and dried meat, but otherwise it is the local people selling what looks like their well-used personal belongings.

146697-affiche_mieussy_2016_hdv2This year, among the wheel hubs, old clothes and shoes, piles of cheeses, and the priceless candy man, we particularly admired some mounted deer heads and a green frog water pitcher. We bought a house-full of porcelain plates for next to nothing as there seems to be a glut of old china on the market as it is not suitable for modern times as it loses its gold trim in the dishwasher.

Complete strangers brag of their extraordinary bargains. There is an overwhelming atmosphere of correct (cheap) consumerism. The collective mind harks back to the excitement of being a little kid with a couple of bucks in your pocket and endless potential purchasing possibilities.

And, of course, this is the beauty of the fall fair. It takes you back to the old days: the carnies putting up their rickety rides on the old fairgrounds; maple sugar candy, toffee apples, and bags of fudge; the prize-winning pies and butter tarts looking a bit worse for wear after a few days in the sun.

My sister tells me that nowadays in Canada most of this has been replaced with the spare-rib trucks, the skewered deep-fried potato slices, the lottery tickets, and the acrobatic girls dressed as bees showing off the vintage cars.

We agreed, though, that there is still that occasional whiff of cotton candy and cigar smoke in the crisp autumn air that shoots you, straight as an arrow, back to a gold-trimmed past.

 

 

The Thanksgiving Turkey Blow-Out

I should have immediately realized that all Geneva shops running out of canned pumpkin was a sign. And then there was my sister’s message proclaiming that not even SHE (the festive queen) roasts turkeys anymore due to the last one being raw, overcooked, and inedible all at the same time. She clearly mentioned a turkey jinx, and I should have dropped all turkey plans immediately and firmly turned my mind towards salmon mousse and osso bucco.

But no. Once a girl gets a turkey dancing in her head, there is a fowl imperative.

(Historical Note:  Yesterday was the second Monday in October and, thus, the real (Canadian) Thanksgiving. The one that the freezing British explorer, John Frobisher, celebrated with his men in 1578, followed by the French settlers of Quebec in 1604 forming the Order of Good Cheer and having a jolly good pot-luck supper with their native neighbours.)

So, on Saturday evening, a distinguished group of French and Japanese friends were invited to our house for supper. The menu was not announced as the surprise factor and the photo opportunities were a brilliant foil for any culinary disasters.

A 6-kg fresh French turkey had been ordered. When it was picked up, it weighed a startling 10 kg – the reason being “they only had big ones”.

I consulted my 1960s cookbook, and was informed that, when stuffed, it would need 9 hours in a slow oven. In the old days, this would have been sufficient information. But having squeezed the huge naked thing with shaking wrists onto a baking sheet and into the lukewarm oven, I started checking.

I now have serious issues with the World Wiglazed-and-lacquered-roast-turkey-840x486de Web. The amount of information there was entirely mesmerizing and contradictory. By the time I had read through it all and realized that (probably) the turkey needed to be started in a hot oven, it had already been in a cold over for over an hour.

Covered in aluminium foil (due to lack of a turkey pan) it sat there doing NOTHING for half the day. As the sun tipped over the mountaintops I began to panic. I had found my turkey baster, but there was nothing to baste. There were emergency consultations. The upshot was that the stuffing should, perhaps, be outside, not inside, the bird. My American friend recommended one hour per pound (i.e., 22 hours) and added the fact that in her family home they had a rocket that shot out of the turkey when it was done. (She might have been making this up.)

It was a long and anxious afternoon as I slowly increased the oven temperature. Emotionally exhausted, at the end of the nine hours I gave up and removed the turkey. Wrists (and all the rest of me) were shaky.

It was perfect, but this was just dumb luck.  Next year, I swear, I’m going to forget all about this feast, and celebrate the Geneva Fast (Jeune Genevois which observes the St. Barthomomew’s Day Massacre, 1572).

All you need to cook is a dead-simple plum pie.

 

Colo-Cola

Well, it seems just like yesterday when I had my last colonoscopy. I remember all the gory details oh-so-well: the shoe-box-sized package of product wittily named “Moviprep”, spending a cold lonely evening stuck on the commode, and apprehensively waiting in the murky bowels of the clinic where technicians stroll around with what look like rolled-up black garden hoses.

And now, five short years later, I’ve been nailed again.

I tried, as usual, to talk my way out of it. There must be a mathematical error. She had promised only every 10 years. No history of colon cancer in my family. My favourite food is muesli. She was having none of it, and retaliated with her own stories concerning family members fainting because of the needle in the back of the hand.

When asked point-blank whether she had actually had one herself, the reply was negative of course.

Intensive international research (a phone call to my sister) has revealed serious cultural discrepancies in the prevention of colon cancer. In Canada you just have to avoid Vitamin C and aspirins and send three-days-worth-of-poo samples off in the mail from the comfort of your own home. After that, no news is good news. Scurvy is a possible side-effect if one procrastinates too long.

If some medical emergency rudely requires a real “colo” then you go on a delicious popsicle, jelly, liquid diet for three days. Here, on the other hand, you are not allowed to eat any fibre food (fruit and vegetables strictly dave-barry-colonoscopy-certforbidden) for five whole days.

Then there is the trauma of the evening before your procedure. You fix your first litre of Moviprep (“colo-cola” in local flash medical parlance), drink (with a straw), and wait. Canadian instructions focus on creating a calming environment with soothing music, scented candles, feather-soft toilet paper, and humorous and diverting reading material. My instructions from the Swiss clinic were to avoid social entertaining on that particular evening as I would be otherwise engaged; and to call an ambulance if nothing happened within two hours.

Anyway, I have a few months in front of me to prepare as the colo doctor has not bought her 2017 agenda yet. I will find the softest eiderdown toilet paper, the loudest Wagnerian thunder-box music, and the most beautiful candles.

Colo-cola cocktails will be served with small paper parasols and black straws. But what I’m really looking forward to is the day after when I will be basking in the sure and certain knowledge of a lovely, healthy, Swiss-clean colo.

 

 

 

Re-entry Hicccups

The full force of the rentrée is with us. The roads are filled with cars, the schools are filled with kids, tanned doctors are back in their offices, exam sessions are underway, the usual French fall strikes have begun, and parking places in town have become rarer than hens’ teeth.

On the political scene here in Geneva a major story has just broken concerning the brilliant invention of the green plastic garbage can. The person in charge (the guy who brought us the concept of letting nature go wild along our public roads) has come up with the startling idea of having a compost bin handily situated right in your very own kitchen. This is to avoid putting heavy things such as corn cobs and nasty inedible sweet potato muffins in your main garbage can. This will, in turn, save money at the cantonal incinerator.

Fortunately, I don’t need a new garbage can, as I still have one that was given out by the Geneva government some 30+ years ago. In those old days of generosity, every household was given 2 garbage cans—a small one of green plastic and a bigger brown brother.  They were meant to stand side by side under the sink.  My retro green James-Bond-era plastic garbage can is virginal as buying the cute little plastic bags that fit inside, and then storing rotting organic waste near a hot kitchen sink somehow struck me as a stinky waste of money.

Agonizing over the circularity, unoriginality, and expense (1.6 million Swiss francs) of green plastic cantonal thought; my politically incorrect garbage can habits; and Geneva’s ever-growing green plastic garbage can mountain, I was struck by a conversation coming from the backseat of the car. The two passengers were discussing the origins of hiccups.

drinking glass of water upside downIt was hypothesized that hiccups result from stress, the proof being that the hiccup victim got an exceptionally bad case right after a small scholastic exercise concerning the multiplication tables. She had completely forgotten some of the trickier calculations (8×7 was a real bummer) due to the summer holidays.

The conversation went on to conclude that either the summer holidays should be shortened to two weeks (so that such lapses and distressing medical episodes could be avoided) or that, like bears, we humans should be able to hibernate all winter and, thus, avoid school entirely.

The average age in the back seat was 9 ½.

Perhaps Canada has got it right.  I’ve not heard anything about free political garbage cans. And there primary school teachers are simply cancelling repetitive and useless activities.

For example, cursive writing is no longer taught. Students learn to print in block capitals – much like the Romans. The curlicues and flying fantasies of penmanship are no longer skills deemed necessary. Stringing things together, like pinning clothes on an outdoor line, is simply a tiresome and irrelevant task.

MAYBENOONEINCANADACANSIGNTHEIRNAMEANYMOREBUTPROBABLYNOONEGETSTHEHICCUPSEITHER.

 

 

 

 

The Coming of the Chip

Here in Switzerland there is no socialised medical coverage. No NHS, no OHIP, no Obama Care, no nothing. We pay a small fortune every month to the private health insurance company of our choice. Basic coverage is obligatory. If you want extras (such as an ambulance or a pair of glasses from time to time) you need a second “complementary” insurance. Don’t even think about dentists.

Your paperwork must be impeccable as each insurance company employs a team of mean and picky people who find all your mistakes so they don’t have to pay.

Right now is the insurance world’s exciting pre-season. In a few weeks, the companies will announce their increased rates for next year, and you have a small window of time when you can actually change companies. This takes knowledge, organisation, motivation and luck. Musical medical chairs and loads of unpleasant telemarketing. Most of us don’t bother.

I consider myself the picture of health. Of course, I take cheap generic pills for one thing and another, but this is simply to keep my hooligan doctor happy and (as I am hugely competitive) to get good scores on my annual medical exams.

I occasionally drink water and eat fruit and vegetables and strenuously vacuum at least once a month. However, the largest medical insurance company is offering an annual rebate of 146 Swiss francs if I walk 10,000 steps every single day. To qualify and prove my devoted athleticism, I must buy a device for my wrist and send the daily results to them via my smart phone.

chip implantYou also have to buy their complementary health insurance package, and I have calculated the cost of saving 146 francs to be the following:

  • 150 francs (cost of wrist step-measuring device)
  • 146 francs (cost of sending 365 sms’s)
  • 840 francs (cost of complementary insurance coverage)

TOTAL:  1,136.00 francs and this does not even count the cost of getting your device by taxi to your grand-daughter so she can do your 10,000 steps on those days when you are actually sick.

Obviously, the next logical step is a chip implant. Straight into the jugular. That way the insurance people can see it all: the smoke, the drink, the drugs, the laziness, the grease, the sugar.

Believe me, crime (cheese fondue) and punishment (ever increasing monthly medical premiums) are just around the corner.

Beef Cheek Stew — a Light Lunch in France

In France, a sandwich for lunch is a sign of both culinary and moral failure. Of course, living in the Geneva countryside you can sometimes sneak in a peanut-butter-and-strawberry-jam-and-bacon-sandwich and no one will ever be the wiser—except, perhaps, your tattle-tale ever-expanding waistline.

So, attention must be paid, and proper French lunches addressed as often as possible. In fact, you can eat almost nothing, and it can be delicious.

Once upon a time, in the south of France the old mother of a friend used to cook for us. Protesting at her bustling morning activities—up early to the market for fresh products, working in the cool kitchen for an hour or two—she explained that what she produced was entirely ephemeral.  The soup was just water. The spinach soufflé was just air. The gigot was just the thinnest of slices. The fromage frais was medical (calcium). As was the fruit (vitamins).  There was a big basket of fresh bread on the table, just in case anyone was hungry.

Sitting down to eat is healthy, as are starched tablecloths and napkins. A serious lunch is eaten indoors where you are protected from the sun, insects, and deadly draughts. Only tourists, children, and bohemians eat outside. Knives and forks keep reflexes sharp and wrists and fingers strong. Bubbles in the water promote digestion and a glass of red wine successfully fights many many diseases.

12_Course_Table_SettingMenus are highly coded and there are a few basic traps.  For example, both façon grandmère and à l’anglaise means boiled in water which is often not so good.  We once had pork chops and vegetables cooked in this manner and the slop on our plates was exactly what we had ordered. You learn quickly.

Of course, there are occasional hideous surprises. A lunch in a small rather shabby mountain-village restaurant recently offered beef cheek stew as their plat du jour.  The cook (who hitchhikes to work) hadn’t been offered a ride early enough, and his cheeks had not spent a sufficient amount of time in the pot. They were extremely chewy and we spent some time trying to swallow them whole.

I was working on flattening them out and hiding them under my mountain of rapidly-cooling pasta spirals when a lady at the next table called over the owner/waiter/manager, and explained, pleasantly, that her knife could not cut the meat.  He dropped everything and tried to saw apart a big rubbery chunk. He failed, and then, along with the whole table, burst into laughter. The meal was officially inedible which was jovially accepted as an accident of life.

Relieved, and then restored and fortified with a café gourmand (a strong black French espresso surrounded by three little delicious deserts) we left happy and sincerely promised to return.

A French lunch out is a meal of hope and possibility. It takes time, and, occasionally, tolerance. And you must always keep in mind that if your beef cheek stew is tough today, it will probably be much better tomorrow.

Fresh Slices of Tourist Hell

It is Sunday July 10 in the Haute Savoie and I am a prisoner of the Tour de France bicycle race. Not the real one—the pretend one. Today, if I chop off a leg with the chain saw, fall through the hole in the upstairs floor or blow myself up while applying fire-starting gel to the BBQ coals, then I’m a goner with a capital G.

Medical assistance is not an option, as 15,000 people dressed in almost identical silly spandex clothes are riding their fancy bicycles in the summer heat over four mountain passes to complete one of the difficult mountain stages of the Tour de France.

And so, our escape road from mountain to city is officially completely closed.

THE PELOTON CLIMBS THE COL DU GALIBIER ON STAGE SEVENTEEN OF THE 2008 TOUR DE FRANCE

These amateur cyclists are leaving in large packs at about 5-minute intervals. They make a road block 68 kilometres long and each has a yellow number attached to his/her handlebars.

(By the way, the REAL Tour de France comes through next week and takes about 5 minutes. I know as I’ve seen it. Once, sitting on a bench in front of the church gossiping with my old farmer neighbours and the priest, it zipped past in an almost silent buzz of energy.)

So, on this day of enforced physical and emotional stasis I am taking stock of my valley.

At the top stand the mountains strong and still – the Aiguille Verte, La Tête à l’Ane and the Mont Blanc catch the early morning sun.

Half way down, the yellow building cranes stand inactive on the new Club Med construction site that has (now that there is no snow anymore and global warming is firmly established) finally been given the green light at the ski resort across the valley. Soon more than 1,000 tourists will be able to come and cavort there in the winter rain and mud.

Further down the mountainside there is the latest landslide that suddenly opened up a couple of months back. Everyone is waiting for the condemned house at the edge to finally fall into the abyss. The insurance man has asked me to give him a call if I see this happen.

So, on this action-packed day of high summer in the mountains, I will set myself up beside the sand heap and the cement mixer. I will get out the green and white parasol to add a festive touch. I will read my book, and doze, and sip mountain-cold spring water. I will try to stay out of trouble and will wait for the evening and its freedom that I will no longer desire.

But right now … if someone could just get me the binoculars.

 

 

 

Mother Nature on my Very Last Nerve

Summer in the Geneva countryside can be glorious, but there are dangers dangling under every leaf. And not just for the plants.

For example, there is the revolting tick situation. Ticks of all shapes and sizes find me attractive and alluring.  Hats, socks, sprays, elastic bands and duct tape cannot keep them away. Just yesterday a pin-head-sized mountain tick came with me to visit the lowlands. It was a one-way trip.

Successfully removed in an operation requiring husband, flashlight, magnifying glass and tweezers—tricky as he only has two hands—I did a tour of several drug stores this morning seeking medical advice.

Microscopic view of a deer tick (Ixodes dammini) magnified about 90 times.
Microscopic view of a deer tick (Ixodes dammini) magnified about 90 times.

My home-base pharmacy where I regularly line up for hours and spend hundreds of francs, told me in no uncertain terms to go away and phone my doctor. This was not successful as the phone was not answered and there was no helpful message. Obviously, she has run away for her summer holidays and is jet-skiing and kite surfing in some tick-free part of the world.

Crawling reluctantly towards of the local emergency health clinic, I thought I’d get a second opinion. Fortunately, here in the Geneva outskirts, drug stores are ubiquitous. They are like 7-Eleven convenience stores in Sweden or Japan. There is one on every corner.

This turned out to be much more satisfactory, and the nice lady told me to do nothing, but keep a close eye on the situation and seek medical help if the bite-site got bigger and/or turned into the famous tick bull’s eye which is a sign of long-lasting complications, multitudinous painful symptoms, and eventual death-by-tick.

Buoyed up no end, I thought I’d chance a third opinion. This was better than ever. The amazingly friendly and intelligent drug store lady put on her spectacles and examined the red blotch. She gave it a poke. She called over a colleague and they had a little conference which included the idea of photographing the site to keep as comparative evidence. She asked if I had the body of the perp (for a post-mortem, one assumes). I was ready for DNA testing myself. She then sold me a nifty product – a roll-on disinfectant and anti-inflammatory especially designed for bug-victims.

Back at home, after a delightful festive tick-free lunch with the cat, my rational mind was formulating plans for an afternoon under a tree with a book when the neighbours’ unsightly bamboo poking through the lawn brought out the inner Wimbledon-Grass-Cutting-Maniac in me.

Now hot, sweaty, and happy, I’m revelling in the knowledge that a well-tended garden should be entirely tick-free.

We’ll see.

The Hole and the Horror

Well, on April 12, 2016 at 15:36 a 28-metre, 4-ton log smashed its way through the back wall of my mountain house (fondly known as The Shack.) Having slid down from a considerable height, it was moving at speed and went on to pierce the upper floor, the middle wall, and the front stone wall. There it came to a halt and that was that. There was an uninvited log in the house.

Being a polite log, it had just barely missed all supporting beams and its discreet exit was underneath the living room window and above the basement door. Damage was considerable, nevertheless, and the shock-value was tremendous.

To remove the log was dramatic and dangerous. More damage was inevitable, but total disaster (house collapse) was miraculously avoided.

The new open gashing wounds were again boarded up, pulverized furniture dragged out into the rain, the stones from the old walls gathered up, and unrecognizable debris shovelled into industrial-strength garbage bags.

tree in shack

Meetings were held to discuss insurance claims and counter-claims. The youngest man on the wood-cutting team was held responsible. Adjusters were called in, photographs were taken, and the site examined and re-examined. Estimates were submitted, convocations sent out, contracts signed, and the repair work has finally begun.

For example, there is a cheery orange cement mixer in the filthy, yet breezy, living room.

Yesterday, on June 23, 2016, by a majority of 52%, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. England was always a renegade log ready to slip down the mountain on a rainy day.  And, sure enough, it has pierced the house that is Europe.

But, like The Shack, old Europe has not fallen. Its beams have not taken a direct hit; its foundations are holding.

Neither accident seems to have been either an act of God or a natural disaster. Any insurance company worth its salt would easily blame the cocky young woodcutter, David Cameron, who has now suddenly discovered that being prime minister can be an extremely dangerous job. He has decided to quit. Lumberjacks on the same team (Northern Ireland and Scotland) claim their complete innocence.

But now is the moment when serious attention must be paid. Removing the British log will be difficult and dangerous. If it’s successfully removed new rents and fissures will appear, more stones will fall, and more glass will be shattered. If it’s pulled out too fast or too hard or too carelessly, beams will give way, the roof will cave in, and Europe will fall down.

It will, of course, take years to clean up the mess, to shift through the rubble, to try to find things that can be saved, and to not cut oneself on the broken crockery.

So, Europe, on this shocking day after the Brexit vote, take heart. It’s a huge mess, but with hard work, honesty, and a lot of luck, perhaps you, too, will have an orange cement mixer in your miraculously-saved living room one day.