Monday, June 27, 2011


Early in the trip, while we were working on our first farm, we were introduced to foraging. While walking from the house to farm land, our hosts would point out something that was edible or good for your health or just tasty. This got me thinking about doing a post about foraging and sharing a bit of what I learned. Finally, after some warranted procrastination, I got my photos together and here it is.

You might have been hiking around in the cool mountains with shorts on when you brush up against some foliage and all of a sudden you feel a sting and a persistent itch bothers you the rest of the day.

Nettles. Getting stung by them is a real pain (especially since the sting lasts so long) but you can get back at them. Eat them! It might not seem like a good idea, but once you cook them, their bite goes away and you get some good nutrients in you. At one of the farms I was on in Italy, they made a delicious soup of it with potatoes in a nice broth.

Here's a closer look at the leaves with their stingers. I read somewhere that one type of nettles have so much poison in them that a sting can kill a horse! Luckily, I don't think that type is in the States. We used dried nettles, at our first French farm, to plant tomatoes. Dried, rolled in a ball, and planted below the tomato plant, it gives the plant a ton of nutrients when the roots get hold and helps protect them from bugs.

Melissa. This delightful and abundant plant seems to thrive anywhere weeds can. When you tear the leaves, a mouthwatering, sweet lemony scent is released. We steeped these leaves in cool water overnight and enjoyed the refreshing water after work the next day. I bet they would make a tasty syrup, ice cream or even a hot tisane.

Salad. This one is obvious with what to do, but I was surprised at how easily resilient lettuce is. While I was plowing some land and getting it ready to plant, we found 10, maybe 12, lettuce plants growing on their own in the hard, unworked land. We transplanted them to the lettuce box; why not, free lettuce! Once in there though, we made sure they didn't get too much heat and kept them well watered. It they don't get enough water and their roots strain to find some, the leaves get bitter and, for me, a bit hard to eat.

Purslane. This little guy takes some looking around to find. I was on my knees weeding when I found it. Ironically, purslane is a fast growing and abundant weed that seems to grow best in sandy soil with lots of sun. But it is very easy to uproot and is extremely healthy for you. The tiny succulent is packed with Omega-3 fatty acid and has a nice, subtle grassy taste. In fact, I think it has the most Omega-3 out of any green.

At the pretentious, but amazing-what-they-did-with-food, restaurant I worked at, they used the purslane leaves in a mediterranean salad. It takes a bit of work to pick off all the leaves, but it's a great way to get some flavor, texture, and nutrients into a meal. I've done it with a quinoa salad, mixed it with some leafy greens, and even thrown it in fried rice, right before serving.

Keeping with leaves, but moving away from straight up edible, here are some herbs and flavors. I'm sure these are all pretty obvious, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.

Bay Leaf. These grow everywhere from little bushes into decent size trees in dry and wet climates. I've seen a few different types during our travels, but the fact that I've seen them all over the place makes me wonder why they are so expensive in the grocery store. Right before heading to Paris, I picked some from a hike we took in Brittany and saved them for cooking here. If you get the fresh stuff, it takes a few more leaves to get the same flavor as the dried ones. In addition, the essential oil of bay leaves are good for helping muscle pain.

Mint. This is a pretty young one, but mint can grow pretty high and their stems can get pretty thick. They seem to grow best where the soil can stay damp in the shade, under taller plants, or in the hills. Steeped in boiled water and mixed with some sugar, it makes a nice, delicate tea. I throw in a teabag of black tea to give it some body. I also dig using mint, with basil, to make pesto and tossing a chiffonade in a leafy or grain salad.

Fennel. Another thing I've seen everywhere is fennel. The fuzzy looking fronds are unmistakable, no matter how tall the plant gets. You can use the fronds, like we did at one of the farms, to flavor some steamed trout, add them to a vinaigrette, or add the sweet licorice flavor as a garnish to a potato salad or even scrambled eggs. The root of fennel the fibrous bulb that looks like a big onion with the texture of celery. I've had it roasted and caramelized, sauteed with onions, bacon and potatoes, and have even seen it eaten like an apple - Italians love the stuff.

Now I'm going to ditch the leaves, keep the flavors and add the flowers.

Mustard. The bright yellow flowers of mustard can be seen far and wide in the spring on the I-5 between the Bay Area and Bakersfield. They were growing with the strawberries at our second farm and seem to do well in the heat. Obviously, the most common use is to grind the seeds with water and vinaigre and make mustard, but we munched on some of the leaves and I think it would add a nice, subtle mustard flavor as a garnish or tossed in a salad.

Garlic Flowers. These beautiful, bell shaped flowers are those of garlic. They are pretty small, maybe the size of a pencil eraser, and have a nice, garlic taste without the overwhelming kick. We found them growing in shady, grassy areas, but I suppose they could grow out in the open, as long as they got enough water. We added these to our salad it not only made it the salad look amazing, it also added the right amount of spice.

Poppy. A sign of fertile land, poppies have a couple uses. The seeds, of course, are used in baking and add a nice flavor as well as making those muffins look irresistible. But we spent time picking a ton of the petals to make syrup. Mixing pounds of petals with sugar encourages the petals to give up their tasty juice. Then heating it with a little water until its a nice consistency makes a delicious syrup that we drank with cold water as a refreshing beverage. I suppose it would also taste pretty good drizzled over some vanilla bean ice cream. Poppies seem to be able to grow anywhere where the weather isn't too aggressive, and I said before, is a sign of healthy land.

Elderflower. These trees are so abundant in France, and I wonder if I'll start noticing them everywhere in the States now that I know what they are. If you've ever had elderberry soda, juice or liqueur, you are somewhat familiar with the taste of the flowers. They have a subtle, sweet, grassy and floral taste and used more as a flavoring than eating. Using the same method as the poppies, they can be made into a nice syrup. You can also steep them in milk to make yogurt and even a delicate ice cream flavor.

We'll, that's a bit on foraging. Since getting a taste for it (pun intended), taking hikes and walking around is a somewhat different experience. I see plants for what they could be and I can't wait to learn more. It's not the most useful skill, but maybe it satisfies some instinct left over from when we were nomadic hunters and foragers.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Paris: Versaille

After a week of clouds and rain, we jumped at the opportunity to go to Versailles on a sunny day. Versailles is just outside of Paris and was home to the royal family and the French court when Louis XIV moved there, leaving the Louvre to become an empire for art. The estate is enormous, so we spent the day, walking around and having a gander at its magnificence.

This post is going to be more of a picture post with short captions. It's cooler looking at Versailles than reading what I have to say about it. I suggest clicking on them to get a better look. Here are the steps to the palace. Thought the pigeons were a nice touch.

New King Louis XVI. Louis XVI was the last to live in Versailles and was forced out by the people of France at the beginning of the French Revolution.

A Portrait of Marie Antoinette With Her Children. As you may recall, she was the wife of Louis XVI and was beheaded during the French Revolution. The French loved that guillotine!

"The 2 Year Doors." I named it that because the guard in the room told us that one side of one door took 6 months to make (you know, with all that gold). So, with four sides to make these doors, it took 2 years. There were 8 pairs of doors in the room.

Cherubs on Doors. These were on the doors to the cathedral and were even more impressive than the 2 year doors.

On to some rooms..
The Study. This charming room was Louis XVI's study and was decorated by Marie Antoinette. The colors are a lot less dark and bold than the others. The colored moldings have 80 layers of paint, with gold mixed in, to create a shimmering lacquered effect like Japanese furniture.

Room of Science. This is where scientists would meet and discuss new discoveries. It was the romantic age of science.

Magnificent Corner. Enough said, although I will mention that the blue with gold fleur de lis is the symbol of the royal family.

Insanely Awesome Chandelier. The rooms just got more and more dramatically over-the-top.

Entertainment Room aka Elastic Collision Room. This used to be a billiard room, although there was no pool table in it anymore. I liked the color palate of this room the best.

King Sized Bed. Yup, this is where Louis XIV dreamed about....who knows what a man that has, and can have, everything dreams about.

Room of Pain. I'm not sure if this is where the queen slept, but this is definitely where she gave birth. The brilliant green chairs were commissioned by and designed for Marie Antoinette specially for her births. Weird.

Queen Sized Bed. This is Marie Antoinette's bed, not at the palace, but in her summer home, still on the property, called Petit Trianon. Louis XVI built it for her, I guess so she could get some fresh air.

Casey in Interior Design Magazine. Learn how to make your summer home look like a royal palace with these 10 easy steps!

Ok, brace yourself.
Hall of Mirrors. This hallway was unbelievable, over the top, and in a need of a adjective pair greater than majestically magnificent. So many crystal chandeliers, so many mirrors, so much gold, so many statues, so many paintings, so many people!

So Good It Needed Another. Here's a more intimate view. By the way, the insanity of this room was the intent. Louis XIV wanted a room with no rivals.

Now for some fresh air.
The French Know Their Gardens. The palace is extremely large, but it's only a fraction of the estate, which was perfectly landscaped and kept.

Adorable Little Farm. This was a darling farm, that is still in use where they keep goats, sheep and poultry.

Sun King Fountain. King Louis XIV, who basically built this place, was known as the Sun King and admired Apollo, the God of Sun.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Paris: The Sights

In the first half of our stay in Paris, we spent a lot of time in the inner, west part of Paris. Rightly so, as this is area with most of the big hitting sights and attractions. We're now enjoying other neighborhood around Paris and it's great getting the feel for their personality and typical inhabitant. But here is a little recap of the sights.

The Arc de Triomphe is a massive arch, commissioned by Napoleon himself, in the middle of a massive round-about. Imagine a five car lane boulevard, twisted around a circle with 12 streets converging into the madhouse of Parisian drivers. It's no wonder French car insurance companies don't insure damage that occurs on this unique road. At first, we weren't sure how to get over and considered trying to cross the thing. But with some intuition, we found the subway to get to the other side and see the monument, commemorating the French Revolution up close.
Notre Dame de Paris is a very impressive cathedral. The day we visited, the line was intimidatingly long and it was drizzling, leaving us second guessing whether to go inside or not. Luckily, the line seemed to be moving pretty fast, we hopped in and I'm glad we did.

From the front, it doesn't seem that gothic, but here's a shot from the back which displays its beautiful tower and intricate arches.

Inside was beautiful. While waiting in line, I asked Daniel if inside was something special, or just the typical awesome cathedral. He didn't think it was fair to assess it as typical, and I agree. The circular stained glass windows towering up high were amazing, even with the cloudy weather outside.

We took a seat and contemplated the cathedral, among other things I assume, and amazed ourselves thinking about how they built this in the 1100s without modern equipment.

While walking around, I couldn't help but notice the amount of opportunities the church provide to spend money. View the treasury and getting to go up top costs a few euro. The well sized gift shop area provides a nice place to get some gifts. And these little penny pressers gives you a nice imprinted coin to remember the cathedral. It felt a little like coin slots in Vegas. I guess the church doesn't get money like it used to, and everyone gotta make a buck somehow.
I'm sure everyone is familiar with this sculpture. We visited the popular Rodin museum and thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I can truly say it was a new art viewing experience for me. As we strolled through the rooms of the museum, I learned how sculpture and the form can convey, quite accurately, human emotion and thought.

He worked a lot and had a very impressive amount of sculptures. But all of it seemed to just be practice for, what I now consider, one of the coolest works of art I have ever laid eyes on. Young as I may be, I think there would be quite a few people who can agree with me.

Rodin's Gates of Hell (just the top part). He has so many figures in this piece, many of them standing as their own work of art as larger sculptures throughout the museum. This massive door is dynamic, telling, and full of the emotions one would expect and be surprised with as the gates of hell. I could spend hours looking at this thing. Unfortunately, we had to head over to the Musee d'Orsay.

But before we did, I grabbed this picture of Casey through a sculpture outside of the museum.
I didn't get any pictures of the Musee d'Orsay as we were pressed for time and didn't want to wasted it waiting for a gab in the crowd, but it was incredible! They specialize in the beginning of modern art, when the impressionists challenged the meaning of a painting and changed the way we look at art. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Along the same line, we also went to a Gustave Caillebotte (who was a great and under appreciated impressionist) exhibit where, while waiting in line, a butterfly landed on my collar and stay there for at least 20 minutes.

On to the Louvre. The over-the-top, insanely cool, biggest museum I've ever been to Louvre. Just to set the scene, this intricate and gargantuan building was built in the 12th century and expanded over the centuries to what it is now: 652,300 square feet of amazingness. Art is contained not only in the bottom, first and second floors of the old fortress, but also a level underground too.

The iconic glass pyramid in front of the Louvre was awesome to see in person. Just like the Eiffel Tower, it was less of an amazing moment and more one of those moments of, "Cool, it's what I thought it would look like."

Here is a view from inside the pyramid as you head down into the lobby of the museum. Once inside, you're faced with the daunting task of choosing a direction and floor to start on. We went on a Friday evening, where 26 and under get in for free. The down side was that it only gave us three and half hours to see it. So we isolated a few centuries worth of art and booked it!

The collection was incredible, and we probably saw less than a tenth of it. Here is a long corridor lined with Renaissance paintings. As you walk down it, you can literally see the Renaissance happen and see the change in theme, technique and approach. Pretty neat!

We of course saw the Mona Lisa. It was a mad house in there and what I imagine being in a pack of paparazzi at the Oscars must feel like. Hardly anyone was actually looking at the painting. Everyone just had their camera and smartphone extended over the person in front of them, trying to get a steady picture. I guess they just wanted to examine the famous painting through 10 magepixels rather then their own eyes. OK. Enough of my sarcasm, it was pretty cool to see in person. But what was even cooler was this ceiling waiting for us just outside the Mona Lisa room. I've seen a ton of frescoed ceilings, but I've never seen a bronze embossed ceiling with frescos and more bronze sculptures on a ceiling. It was insane to look up at and this photo definitely does not do it justice.

After our time there, we totally need to go back. There was just so much we breezed by and missed as we headed for something higher up on our list. We saw the major ones like this piece, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which was probably made around 190 BC. BC!!!! It is a beautiful and powerful sculpture and it was great to see it, along with everything else, in person.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Paris: The Friends

We've had a pretty busy first week in Paris and its strange to even realize that it's only been a week. Everyday we are discovering something new and amazing about this city, not just in the museums and sights, but in everyday things like this incredible bridge.

Here's a different angle that is a great example of the views you get all over the city. Incredible, gold statues towering the pillars that base the bridge, a couple of boats that serve as floating bars, the already-mentioned gorgeous bridge, and of course, the Eiffel Tower just hanging out in the back.

Part of the reason why this week has been so busy is that we shared it with a couple of friends.

Casey sandwiched herself between her long time BFF Emily and Emily's boyfriend, Daniel, while we had a picnic on the Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. Emily and Daniel were hanging out in the south of France and ended their trip with a few days in Paris which luckily coincided with our time here.

We spent the last few days hanging out and seeing the sights with them. We saw so much, that I'm going to post very soon about the other attractions and focus on just a couple right now. Mainly, what we did on Thursday, June 16th.

We started the day early and met in the 14th arrondissement at the Catacombs of Paris. In the late 18th century, Paris was faced with big problem. The city had undergone a very large expansion and steady rise in population for centuries. Because of limited space and limitations of expansion, cemeteries became overpopulated on only the wealthy were able to afford church burial. For the rest, there were mass burials, most without coffins. This concentration of decomposing matter quickly polluted water systems and Paris was forced to address the problem.

The solution was to exhume over 6 million bodies from these mass graves and store the remains somewhere else, making more room for more burials. Beginning in 1786, workers exhumed and stored the bones of millions of Parisiens in an old underground mine for the next two years, thus making the Catacombs.

It was an unbelievable sight. Not just to see the remains of humans with my own eyes, but to be in the presence of the sheer volume of human remains.

When we first entered the mines, we walked through the narrow corridors of the dark, damp mine, seeing the hand chiseled stone where materials were harvested to build Paris. But soon we were upon what we came to see. Both sides of the tunnel were lined with skulls and, mainly, femurs neatly stacked on each other that reached to about my shoulders.

It was absolutely incredible. Not only where all these bones stacked up to my shoulders, and not only were there stacks of the bones behind the stacks of bones we could see; all of these bone lined tunnels went on and on and on. We'd exit a chamber thinking that was it, and then realize that there was more. Then later, realize that we were four chambers past where we thought the end was.

For me, it was also inspiring. It seems like such a foundational art school exercise to paint or draw a skull to understand the face. But I never got to do that, so it was fascinating to get the chance to see and "study" so many skulls. I'm excited to get back to my paints and a do a few studies of my own.

To lighten things up, we headed over the charming Montmartre after leaving the Catacombs.

Apart from the major attractions, that I'm sure most people are familiar with, Montmartre is a place in Paris that I was somewhat familiar with before visiting. This is mainly due to it being the setting of the movie Amélie and the number of times I have seen that film. It was great, reliving scenes in iconic Montmartre spots and taking a 360˚ view of where the film characters were. This eastern looking, castel like cathedral is the Basilique du Sacré Cœur, and from its steps was one of the best view points of Paris.

Being such a beautiful and iconic spot, there were a lot of tourists and folks trying to sell anything to this overwhelming market. But this guy, with the soccer ball tricks, was someone I could spare a bit of change for. He was beyond talented. He was 5 feet up on the this square topped pilar, juggling and bouncing the ball on any part of his body, spinning it atop a pencil and balancing it on his head, foot, elbow, knee and even butt, and at one point, we was doing a one handed handstand while balancing it on his foot.

We walked down the hill, Daniel and I lagging behind, to explore the rest of Montmartre to find the girls being best friends.

I'm not sure what the back story is, but they were determined to find an ideal spot (after missing the Eiffel Tower) to twirl and say "Ju suis la mayer fille!" (I'm the best girl!) I am certain that the agreement to do this in Paris originated in high school French class.

Montmartre was a fun place to explore. It is full of unique boutiques with smart and interesting designs. Sure, most things are way out of my price range, but it was still a nice neighborhood in which to walk around, and with its higher than city level view, it reminded me a bit of San Francisco. The picture up there is play on a very well known painting called the Oath to the Horatii. The themes in the original painting, which ironically we saw at the Louvre the following day, are loyalty and patriotism, saturated with machismo. This street artist tweaked it a bit and inserted football helmets, protein powder, and had the men swearing their oath to Gatorade. Pretty clever statement if you ask me.

Leaving Montmartre, we were delighted to walk past this three part jazz group. On a sunny day, with the carousel spinning behind them, the group just made this stroll through the square so much more romantic. I didn't mind giving them some change either!