For the Love of France

Within my first 6 months living back in London I have ventured over to France 4 times…it really must be love!

From the City of Lights in Paris to craft beer drinking Lille, to the castles of Loire and finally to the capital of gastronomy Lyon, I’m making a serious dent in becoming a Francophile. Who would have thought it?

My recent trip to the Loire Valley was special. My mom made her way over from New Jersey for our first mother/daughter European adventure. What better way to spend the time then to hop on the Eurostar then travel through bright yellow canola fields into the city of Tours at the heart of the Loire Valley.

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

We trailed the internet in search of the perfect wine tour but it just didn’t appear to exist. In the end we booked with Loire Valley Tours, where we visited some of the famed castles in the valley and tried a few wines. We were joined by two 19-year-old American’s who were studying abroad, and I couldn’t help but smirk at their naivety, something that I swore I didn’t have when I was in their shoes back in my university days abroad in 2003. Even funnier was that the girls were studying French in Toulouse. Our driver Simon kindly pointed out that learning French in the south would be like learning english in Liverpool, the accent is just simply that bad.

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon rudely wouldn’t assist us in making a dinner reservation, something that I would have thought is going above and beyond. He wanted to prove a point though, so as I hung up after nervously calling one of the best local restaurants in Tours to book us into dinner, he said, “See, do you now have a reservation?” And after I bashfully responded “Yes”, he said, “I told you so, this is 2016 after all and everyone in France speaks english.”

My favourite castle was Chenonceau, set over River Cher with immaculate gardens and a fascinating story as it was built by different women over the centuries.  I also enjoyed the day in the picturesque town of Amboise, visiting Leonardo de Vinci’s grave and home where he died, and the interesting lunch of pork belly at what one would assume was a tourist trap yet was strangely filled with locals at cave restaurant La Cave aux Fouées.

Our wine tasting at Caves Duhard was like nothing I had ever experienced before. No wine was made there, it simply was storage, but then again that’s what caves in France are perfect for. In fact, one of the oldest bottles they still had was from 1874. As we carefully walked along the dirt floor into the darkness of the depth of the cave, we passed thick green bottles stacked upon bottles, labelless, casually divided by a concrete wall with the name and year scribbled on a piece of wood. As I wiped dust off of a 1983 Vouvray, the year I was born, I contemplated buying it. Prices were very reasonable after all but following the brief tasting we had paired with some amazing local cheese I thought better of it and bought a cheap and cheerful Moutlouis to drink on a warm summers day. Note: I’ve already drank it and it was more delicious the second time around.

It appeared our answer to everything that weekend was “Bonjour”. More wine? Bonjour. Have a good evening. Bonjour. Where are you from? Bonjour. So as we made our way from Michelin-starred restaurants to boutique wine bars and said our bonjours, we took our last stop in Paris before travelling back to London for one more wine, escargot and beef tartare. Oh how French.

The following weekend I was on a flight with my friend Jake back over to France again, but this time to where it is oddly referred to as the stomach of France, Lyon! Oh, how I loved Lyon!

Shamefully I hadn’t done my research well enough in advance, and we arrived late Saturday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend to fly back again on Monday. I had planned it perfectly in my head, only to learn that there are no wine tours on Sunday and we wouldn’t arrive early enough on Saturday! So here I was, traveling to the famed northern Rhone Valley and there wasn’t an opportunity to taste the wine at a vineyard?! So not cool. But then again, if you don’t ask you don’t get and luckily I came across Vincent of Lyon Wine Tours, a young wine tour operator who kindly picked us up at Lyon airport Saturday afternoon and took us through elegant Cote-Rotie to try some perfect Syrah and Viognier. Oh and unlike Simon, he offered to make our dinner reservation. My only regret now was flying with carry on only as we couldn’t bring anything back!

Cot Rotie Condrieu

Cote Rotie Condrieu

But being in France’s foodie capital meant that the rest of the trip was all about eating, of course. From traditional blood sausage, the new superfood apparently, and the best potatoes dauphinoise I’ve ever had at traditional Lyonnaise eatery Chez Mounier. The real star of town however is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, a famed gastronomic institution where locals come to gather not only to shop from each little storefront of over 48 merchants for cheese, foie gras, pralines, charcuterie and others but also to make their way from each small restaurant to the next, trying a new dish as each had its own speciality.

We desperately wanted oysters but found ourselves sat at the counter of Les Garcons Bouchers (The Butcher), ordered some of the finest steak and potatoes for breakfast, and had a friendly chat with our French neighbours who poured us bounty of their own wine as we must try it they demanded. Oysters would come next for lunch at L’epicerie before dining at Lyon’s famed chef Paul Bocuse’s brassiere, Le Sud.

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

The city itself is picturesque, with an Old Town, cobblestone streets and all, and a huge cathedral, Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière,  at the top of the hill which makes for a great afternoon hike in between all the wine and food tasting. There’s also plenty of shopping and nightlife, but who needs that in a culinary haven such as Lyon.

Hey! Mr. Tamborine Man

Apparently snakes don’t give warning before they attack! I know, weird right? I’ll make it clear up front that I have not been bitten by a snake however, I have been intrigued after having a discussion on the top of Mount Tamborine, whilst  overlooking the valley, of people who have been bitten on the ankle by a snake, and only realize such after returning home from their walk. I would assume there would have been some fair warning. Apparently because of all the flooding last year the snakes are coming out to play!

Cheers! We're on our way

Mt. Tamborine is a boutique wine region on an eight kilometer ridge of a mountain chain along the Gold Coast. Since my friend Nidya was celebrating a birthday we rented a limo and headed to the southern hinterlands – up the mountain for some schnapps, wine, beer and cheese tasting to celebrate! I relived what felt like prom, posing for photos out front of the limo before our friendly driver Brian ushered us on our way.

Mt. Tamborine Distillery, so cute!

First stop was Mt. Tamborine Distillery. A cute little property tucked back behind black iron gates, the distillery sits amongst gingerbread house style buildings with large black and white spades plastered over the exterior. Vintage gardening tools rest against oak barrels as the fountain trickles calmly in the background. We were greeted instantaneously by the colorful owner Michael and his wife with a rendition of happy birthday played on accordion.

Michael from Mt. Tamborine Distillery wrapping some lemoncello

Michael looks a bit like Father Christmas only in his Hawaiian style shirt it all seemed out of place. The eclectic charm of the distillery was a good choice for this first stop as the variety of schnapps in hand painted colorful glass, from wattle toffee to Turkish delight to musk and lemocello (a favorite amongst the group), had given everyone a head start with their buzz so early in the morning. I’m thinking that the champagne we had up the mountain didn’t help either.

I’d recommend a stop here for anyone traveling in the region – polite, unconventional, and fun. The handmade eastern European knickknacks around the shop were enjoyable to browse through and we all left with a little something – whether it is a bottle of schnapps or hand-woven wool hats. But before we got too comfortable it was time to move on.

The vineyard at Witches Falls

Witches Falls Winery is one of the most favored in the region. In addition to light and fruity syrahs and sauvignon blancs with hints of capsicum (pepper) and oak they also specialize in batches of wild fermented yeast varieties. A big risk for wine makers because the outcome is so unpredictable however the viognier was one that I couldn’t refuse to take back with me.

Gallery Walk

Back in town is what is known as Gallery Walk. It’s the closest thing to “downtown” as it gets up in this mountain community, with a strip of art galleries, fudge shops, local craft merchants and handmade goodies all around. Tucked at the top of the street sits Mount Tamborine Brewery. With the small craft brewery on site, this cute stop off is a great place to get lunch, use the toilet (as many of the wineries don’t allow customers to use the restrooms unless there is a restaurant on site – weird!), and sample some of their delicious brews. $10 gets a sampler of 4 beers that the knowledgeable staff helps mix and match based on your preferences for taste. I chose the darker variety which had an awesome Belgian dubbel, black forest German dark beer, a mild lager and strong wheat. Also here is the cheese factory where they make delicious cheese on the premises and may have judged us a little bit for wanting a taste of nearly everything! I have a garlic goat cheese waiting for me to dip into that I’m having hard time not gobbling down instantaneously.

Flight of beers at Mt. Tamborine Brewery

Cheeeeeese Factory

All the champagne, schnapps, wine and beer started getting to our heads so we traveled farther down Gallery Walk to the Mt. Tamborine Winery to
have lunch on large picnic tables outside. The food was a bit disappointing as was the fact there was no actual vineyard. We nibbled on small baguettes, salads and lamb shanks. I find it interesting that lamb shanks in N. America can be quite expensive and only served at certain restaurants where it is a dish that I’m told many Australians have grown up with and I’ve spotted it on menus quite frequently. So, because we were running a bit tight on time we opted to skip the tasting and find a view so we could enjoy the scrumptious looking rocky road cupcakes made by Sharni.

The top of the world at Mt. Tamborine

Brian drove us to a lookout point on the side of the mountain where hang gliders often leap from. As the wind blew my hat off of my head and we watched it tumble down the mountain Jacqui caught it in time just before it leaped over the same edge the hang gliders often do. I asked her not to risk if for a $9.99 hat but luckily she was fast! So there we sat, quietly and calmly eating our cupcakes while taking in the breathtaking view and winding down from a very long day which unpredictably was going to be a lot longer. This is where we talked about the damn snakes that don’t give warning.  I also asked Brian if this was a popular make out point however I don’t think he heard me because I never got a response.

We turned into the side streets of Paddington, back in Brisbane, bladders nearly busting and contemplated where to take the night. Naps before dinner or shine right through. I think the answer is obvious.

Vietamese at Kim Lan post winery tour

Those with other evening obligations traded spots with some of the guys since they didn’t join on the wine tour and there was no better spot to dine then KimLan in Chinatown. I watched Nidya eat a fried Quail whole – literally, whiling singing the tune “bones bones bones bones bones” as I couldn’t believe it is okay to eat friend bird bones, spine and all. But, I’ll let you judge her for that.  Happy Birthday Nidya!

Happy Birthday Nidya!