Saturday, 24 January 2015

Paris in January (post number two)

My sister and I had such trepidations about going to Paris right after the terrible terrorist attacks, that when we got there we realised we'd made no plans whatsoever of what to do or see. This is not exactly unusual for us, though. We've long since realised that our annual holiday is really just a massive, intense, catch-up. In truth, we could be anywhere, and still have a good time.

So, on the first full day in Paris, after a leisurely breakfast, we looked at the map and saw that from the hotel, we could easily walk up to the major shopping area, Boulevard Haussmann. Once en route, we decided that instead of walking straight up Boulevard Saint-Martin, we'd weave our way along smaller streets, and ended up for (very) late lunch in a small cafe in one of the beautiful covered walkways, Passage Verdeau. We had an excellent fish pie, laden with garlic and parsley, which we washed down with a pichet of lovely Chablis. As we enjoyed our modest but delicious lunch, we discussed how in Paris almost wherever you go, the food and drink is good, even excellent. (Big Sis is in the food trade). Unlike, sadly, in London, where as a tourist you must find it terribly difficult to know which places serve good food and which places just look like they should. There seems to be a pride in France, and especially in Paris, about the quality of the food and drink they serve; something we still do not wholly possess in the UK (or Finland for that matter).

I think Big Sis likes Paris... 

The night before was a case in point. Deciding to stay close to the hotel, we'd started the evening in a cafe in Le Marais called Cafe Charlot, where we ordered Spanish sardines to go with our glass of champagne. We were in Paris after all...our excuse numero un.

Sardines in a tin...but they were delicious.
After our aperitif we walked along the street and ended up in a famed couscous place called Chez Omar, where we had the most fantastic and quite reasonable meal of chargrilled kidneys and roasted chicken with the fluffiest couscous I've ever tasted. It all came with a vegetable broth and an excellent fiery chilli paste, plus a friendly owner who spoke to people at every table, making sure his customers were happy. (On Saturday night there was a queue outside - it seemed we'd been lucky to get in on Thursday without having to wait).

Chez Omar is definitely a place I will want to revisit.
But back to Friday, our first full day in Paris. After our lunch we felt strengthened enough to do some more shopping. But, my goodness, we hadn't realised that it was 'a second mark-down day' and it seemed as if the whole of the population of Paris had descended on Galeries Lafayette...the discounts were amazing, as mentioned in my previous post below, but after an hour or so browsing, both Big Sis and I had had enough of the aggressive, pushing (mostly) female bargain hunters and escaped to the third floor champagne bar for a refreshing glass of bubbly. (I know, this is a recurring theme).

That evening, we were so exhausted from our shopping that what was meant to be a pre-dinner snack of cheese and wine, preceded by champagne (I know, I know), turned into a supper. I'm a little ashamed to admit that we spent Friday night talking and laughing in our room, wearing our pyjamas and eventually falling asleep after watching 'Last Tango in Halifax' (they had BBC One in the hotel). As I said, it doesn't really matter where we are, as long as we can have a good natter....

Our supper in the room.
Cafe Charlot38 Rue de Bretagne75003 Paris

Chez Omar
7 rue Bretagne75003 Paris
Galeries Lafayette
40 Bld Haussmann
75446 Paris

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Paris after Charlie Hebdo

Big Sis and I have a tradition; we meet up in early January each year, and have a holiday a deux somewhere a little warmer than London. This year we chose Paris (hence the French above), since neither of us had been there for years.

Then the unthinkable happened, and there was the most horrendous terror attack on the satirical magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo, just days before our planned holiday. I have to admit that we both had some reservations about going to Paris so soon after the attack, but being Finns (and me a Londoner!), we decided to deploy our natural Finnish characteristic, sisu, and packed our bags and stepped onto the Eurostar train at Pancras International station last Thursday.

Little did we know that our hotel, which Travel Team at Guild Travel had booked for us some time ago, was very near where the atrocity took place, and right at Place de la Republique where the demonstration in support of freedom of speech had taken place only few days previously.

Plus, we were told,  the area of Le Marais was reportedly swarming with armed police...

But I think we saw only a handful of army troops or police officers over the four days we stayed in Paris. Parisians were a little more subdued and less jolie than usual, but otherwise the city was its beautiful and stylish self.

Our hotel, Crowne Plaza, was excellently placed at a walking distance of good cafes, bistros and shops. We had a large bedroom on the top floor with two double beds; the staff were extremely friendly and helpful; plus there was a wholly adequate breakfast, which sustained us long into the afternoon. (I find it's difficult to find a good breakfast in chain hotels these days).

A room with a view.
Our room.
The staircase was spectacular.
There was a beautiful internal courtyard
at the hotel, but alas it was too cold
to have our breakfast there.
But being where we were, signs of the terror attack were evident everywhere. On our first night in town we walked past Le Monument de la Republique, which was adorned with banners, names and drawings of the tragically killed employees of Charlie Hebdo with slogans of 'Je Suis Charlie'. Suddenly we felt soberingly close to the terrible events of the previous week.

On a whole we had a lovely time in Paris, there was an incredible sale at La Fayette where I very nearly bought a dozen designer bags, but restrained myself and bought just a lovely Marc by Marc Jacobs purse, which had 40% off the retail price. (I'm so proud of myself!)

We had great food, great wine, a few too many glasses of champagne, and a lot of laughs, in spite of the sad times this beautiful city is going through.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Nordic TV Drama: The Legacy

As you know I'm a huge fan of Nordic drama, and my latest passion is a Danish series from the makers of The Killing, called The Legacy (Arvingerne). Unlike The Killing, this is not a detective story,  but an intricate drama of what happens after the sudden death of a celebrated artist, Veronica Gronnegaard. Her legacy is her priceless artworks, but also the chaotic life she led and the (often impulsive) decisions she made during it, which have posthumous reverberations far beyond her immediate family.

Gro, Veronica's curator daughter, (above) has grand ideas of how best to celebrate her late mother's legacy - only problem is her siblings all have their own agendas, and ideas about what should be done with Veronica's considerable fortune.

The plot is delicious with plenty of secrets and lies. Not only do the four siblings have three different fathers, but one of them, Veronica's ex-husband, who's also Gro's failed musician father, lives in a ramshackle shed at the bottom of the garden. What will happen to him now Veronica is no longer there to protect him?

The casts is excellent, I particularly love Gro, who's played by Trine Dyrholm (she was also good in A Royal Affair) but her elder successful businessman brother, Frederik (Carsten Bjornlund) is also chilling in the portrayal of the eldest son's cold, calculating grief.

We are on episode five (out of 8), and I'm now totally hooked and cannot wait for the next instalment of my latest Nordic obsession.

The Legacy is on Sky Arts 1 (in the UK)

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Tenu - Finnish pop-up restaurant in London

I've been longing for a Finnish restaurant in London and even though Tenu was just a pop-up open for one month in December 2014, it was such a pleasure to see Brits being introduced to the delicacies of my home country. On the night we went, there were a lot of fellow Finns there too, and we spotted at least one famous chef sampling the Nordic fare.

The Englishman and I thoroughly enjoyed the Tenu house cocktail 
Antto Melasniemi, together with the artist Klaus Haapaniemi (who is most famous for his designs for Iittala ceramics), created a bit of Finland in Soho, in an intimate room near Leicester Square, a space that was previously occupied by an outpost of St John's Bread and Wine. 

I took my family, and we'd all been looking forward to having reindeer, but seeing the menu on the night, couldn't decide what to have. The Englishman suggested the 7 course tasting menu, and that was an excellent choice. I made one provision, however. I'd heard through the Finnish London Ex-pat grapevine that the sweetened potato bake (imelletty perunalaatikko) was to die for, so I wanted some of that on our menu. Son asked for reindeer, and when the friendly waitress promised us both we sat back and enjoying out Tenu gin cocktails with lingonberries, waited for our tastebuds to be taken back to Finland.

Tenu Gin Cocktail
And my goodness that - and more - is what happened. For me, the potato bake was the star of the show, and I had to stop myself from licking the dish clean. (I particularly loved the slightly burnt bits round the top of the dish). It took me right back to my childhood in Tampere. 

The salmon fish chowder with salmon roe was also excellent, as was the lingonberry granita for dessert. There were also two more fish courses, and some very tasty chicken liver with those beautifully fresh tasting lingonberries, in between.

Salmon fish chowder.
Reindeer with beetroot.
Sweet potato bake.

Lingonberry granita and liquorice brûlée.  
The whole experience of the meal was improved by the beautiful table coverings, china and decorations by Haapaniemi, who now has a shop in London on Redchurch Street, just a hop and a skip from Shoreditch House.

After our meal I decided to have a quick chat with the chef, Antto Melasniemi. I'd been watching him do the cooking in the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, and wanted to thank him for the wonderful experience. When I told him my only wish was that Tenu would be permanent, and leant over the counter, I noticed that while chatting to me Antto was also caramelising a couple of liquorice creme brûlées with a blow torch. 'Oh,' I said and moved away, 'I'd better leave you to it!' In a typically understated Finnish way, Antto took a swig out of a martini glass with his free hand (it was nearly the end of the service and the pop-up) and said, 'No, it's fine.' (When a Finn says it's fine, he means that it is no problem at all - really - unlike a Brit who'd mean exactly the opposite...). I'm sure Antto's laid-back attitude to life is what made the pop-up such a relaxed, happy place.

Me with Antto Melasniemi
Please, please, please, Antto, make Tenu a permanent feature in London!           

Monday, 29 December 2014

Finnish Christmas and Heirloom restaurant, and the Savoy...

I rashly promised someone over on Facebook that I'd blog the recipes for my Finnish Christmas vegetable bakes... sadly I never got round to it this year, but perhaps in 2015? I see from my archives that I have blogged several times about my Finnish food traditions (with pictures), so until next year, this will have to do.

As usual, Christmas was a busy time for the Halme family. On the 24th, together with Son and Daughter, we had our fill of gravad lax, marinated herring, schnapps, as well as home-cooked ham and Finnish swede and carrot bakes.

Rosolli (beetroot salad) 
Gravad lax with schnapps
The terrier waiting for his presents
On Christmas Day, after presents and a couple of glasses of bubbly, we all headed out to the country to visit the Englishman's mother who turned 94 on the day. It was a lovely family gathering with 12 of us around a long table, chatting and laughing - and eating too much.

The main event: turkey!
On Boxing Day we drove back again through the frosty landscape in the bright sunshine, which in the evening turned into driving rain (sadly no snow in North London), but by that stage we were safely tucked up in our flat, preparing another Finnish food-fest. For some reason, all of it tasted far better second time around - perhaps it's the contrast between the traditional turkey and trimmings which makes Finnish food taste so delicious.

Day after Boxing Day was Daughter's birthday, and we were drinking champagne again in the morning, and in the evening we had invited a few of her friends and Son to a local eatery here in North London, Heirloom. It's a bit of a tradition to go out on Daughter's birthday, either for brunch, lunch or dinner. Usually I keep the venue a closely guarded secret, but this year, I gave her the choice of restaurant and she liked the idea of keeping it local.

Daughter opening her presents at Heirloom
We'd been to Heirloom a few times now, and we've never been disappointed with the food. It's fresh, traditional British fare with a modern vibe - all the vegetables are grown on a farm in Buckinghamshire and the food therefore is truly seasonal. I had Cornish Squid with Fennel and Datterino Tomatoes to start, Cornish Place with Ratte Potatoes and Seaweed Butter for mains. Both dishes were cooked to perfection. Other people around the table seemed pleased with their choices too. I tasted Daughter's Yellow Chanterelle Barley Risotto with black pudding to die for. It was all so tasty that the place reminded me a little of Fäviken in Sweden. Heirloom is obviously not in the same league vis-a-vis the theatre of the experience there, or the ingredients (or price bracket), but the cooking is definitely superb, and really quite handy for us, as it is just a short walking distance from home.

Yesterday I was invited by friends to lunch to Kaspar's at The Savoy (as one does!), and again my tastebuds were taken to another level. The Savoy looks so festive, especially at Christmas time, and inside its luxurious cocoon, you feel as if you'd stepped into another, more elegant, era.

Today, I came down to earth with a bump as the alarm went off at 6.30 am and I had to make my way to work. Luckily the Englishman drove me into Camden, so at least I didn't have to brave the London public transport quite yet....

Although, there is still one huge treat in store for me this Christmas: we are going to the Finnish pop-up restaurant, Tenu, tonight. But more about that later!

Did you have a quiet or a busy Christmas?