The packing has commenced and the two-day scramble to get all “affairs in order” before an international trip has reached full-tilt boogie.
I am about to travel back to the European continent. This time I won’t have a wife, two kids, and an artist in tow. On this go ‘round my wife will accompany me, but I’ll also be co-hosting a group of 18 people interested in war and food.
The trip was born out of a casual dinner conversation last summer. University of Southern Mississippi history professor Dr. Andrew Weist and I were seated together at a campus function. Weist— a noted war historian with several books to his credit, and most recently a National Geographic film based on one of his works— was talking about leading student groups to World War I and World War II battlefields in Europe. I was talking about all of the dining referrals I give to people who are travelling to Europe. Over the course of the dinner, someone got their peanut butter stuck in someone else’s chocolate, or maybe it was chocolate in the peanut butter, and a trip was born.
The plan was that Weist would take our travelling companions to battlefields and historic sites during the day. I would serve picnic-style lunches on the battlefields and then I would host the group at dinner in the evening. Initially, I wanted to call the trip “War and Food” but somewhere along the way the name morphed into “Battlefields and Baguettes.”
Within a week we started working on the trip details with the extremely knowledgeable and uber efficient members of the University of Southern Mississippi International Studies faculty. A month later we posted it on the internet, and within two hours the trip had sold out. The journey will start in London, then cross the English Channel landing in Belgium and Normandy, before finally winding down in Paris.
So I have pulled out my European travel bags, washable underwear, comfortable shoes, and more electronics than they used on the first moon shot, and am “gearing up.” Most of the real work is done in advance. For his part Weist, a brilliant and learned professor who can lecture for a few hours on any given historical topic one draws from a hat, is good to go. His research was done well before his doctoral thesis. I, on the other hand, have been investigating restaurants and booking reservations for several months.
Following my typical travel approach, I’m not focusing on fine dining, but real, local culinary experiences. I will take our group to casual pubs and local joints where the menu is “real” and not dumbed down for tourists. We will eat with the locals and we will eat what the locals eat.
If this trip were hitting Italy, Spain, Southern France, Greece, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, or Germany I would be able to book restaurants from memory. As it stands, I have yet to visit London and have only driven through Belgium and Northern France on my way to other destinations.
So how does one book restaurant reservations for a place he or she has never visited? Easy, the way Weist learned about the battle of Liege— research. Over the years I have grown adept at evaluating restaurants through their websites, conversations with the management, recommendations by friends, and weeding through a few of the review sites.
I have found that Trip Advisor is a pretty reliable source for online reviews. All travel-review sites have “outlier” evaluations that should be weeded through in a methodical manner, though Trip Advisor seems to cater to more astute travellers. Of course, nothing beats a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust.
My key for this trip has been a former sous chef, Crag Dennis, who worked alongside me when we opened the Purple Parrot Café in 1987. A few years later he moved to Paris and, for the last 24 years, has commuted between that wonderful city and a small coastal village in southwest France. Dennis has been my conduit to the continent. Hopefully he will be able to join us for a few legs of the journey.
By the time this column becomes ink on paper I will be neck deep in battlefields and baguettes. Throw a few travelling mercies my way, keep your fingers crossed that I nailed all of my dining choices, and stay tuned. I’ll be journaling from the road on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and at www.robertstjohn.com. If it all turns sour, at least I got to use the word “boogie” in a column.
Fresh Strawberries with English Cream
1 cup Cream
1 cup Half and Half
2 Tbl Grand Marnier
3/4 cup Sugar, divided
5 Egg yolks
2 tsp Vanilla extract
In a 1 quart stainless steel pot bring the cream, half and half, Grand Marnier, vanilla and half of the sugar to a simmer. While it is heating, combine the yolks and remaining sugar in a mixing bowl and whip until light in color.
Slowly temper (pour) the cream mixture into to yolks. Once all of the cream has been added into the yolk mixture, return the mixture back to the pot. Cook over low-medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula, do not use a whip. Make sure to stir the edges and bottom of the saucepot well while the sauce is cooking. Cook until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat a spoon or spatula.
Remove from the heat pour the sauce immediately into a stainless steel bowl and cool down over an ice bath. Refrigerate until needed. This sauce will hold for three to four days, covered, in the refrigerator.
4 pints Fresh strawberries, hulls removed and berries quartered
1/2 cup Sugar
1 Tbl Lemon juice, freshly squeezed
While the sauce is cooling, prepare the strawberries.
Place the cleaned and cut berries in a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the sugar and lemon juice over the berries and gently toss them in the bowl so that the sugar gets evenly distributed. Do this 1-2 hours prior to serving.
To serve, divide the strawberries evenly among 8 small chilled serving bowls or ice cream dishes. Drizzle one quarter cup of the sauce over the berries and serve.