Monday, November 8, 2010

November 4: Avignon

You know you are jet-lagged when you order a taxi in advance to take you to one of Paris's several railway stations — and then tell the driver to take you to a different one. We wondered why we were driving for more than 20 minutes when it was supposed to be a five-minute ride.... Oh. We had some anxious moments between the Gare du Nord and the Gare de Lyon; traffic was stalled due to a Chinese dignitary's entourage. But we didn't miss the private, high-speed train that took the forum participants to Avignon. It would have been terrible if we had, because they served very good little pastries (Pierre Herme) along the way.

The countryside between Paris and Avignon is lovely, with tiny, red-roofed farm villages and green-gold fields of grazing sheep and dainty white cows. Avignon is a medieval hill town in Provence; it is famous for its papal palace, a gothic fortress built by a series of 14th-century popes on hiatus from Rome in politically unstable times. It was dark when we arrived at our hotel. My first five-star French hotel; I'm really a three-star kind of girl. The hotel opened in 1799 by one of Napoleon's mistresses. Dickens, Jackie O, Picasso, Dali, and various queens and presidents slept here.

Here's our room:

Beyond that door is a mirrored entryway lined with closets. 
There's a single bed in the corner, disguised as a sofa.

Oh, those naughty French: This bed is designed for THREE!

We had three enormous windows overlooking a cobblestone street.

I ranted about the bathroom out of habit: 
"There's no room in here for a toothbrush!"

A separate room with shower, toilet, and bidet...

Lots of toiletries —with labels, so I won't mistake 
the shoe polish sponge for a face sponge. 
(I once gave myself a waterproof forehead in Italy.)

As soon as we settled in, it was time to dress for a cocktail party at city hall and dinner at the papal palace. I wore my favorite Ferragamo heels, not expecting to be confronting steep, medieval cobblestone ramps and staircases in the Palais des Papes. But the dinner was held in a gothic-vaulted stone room near the top of the palace. 

The chefs were all top-ranked in France: Pierre Herme, Marc Veyrat, and Phillippe Gavreau. This was worrisome, because sophisticated dishes are usually lost on me, and I can't digest certain rich ingredients or alcohol. And, even more unfortunately, I was really craving a bowl of chicken soup. 

The chefs and their students were in high gear. There was clearly no chance of chicken soup. "We're having sod!" said my husband, looking at the herbaceous green slabs in front of the chefs:


The first course was a dish of mashed potatoes with a sauce of local truffles, topped with a dollop of dark chocolate sauce and two crispy tuiles. Put chocolate on almost anything and I will eat it. I was happy to eat this. The mayor of Avignon was sitting across from me, and advised us to eat it "vertically" to taste all three flavors at once. I did. Bliss.

Sod with icy bon-bon and chocolate-truffle potatoes.

Then we confronted the "sod." It truly looked like ground-cover, sitting on a slab of something like tree bark. It held a pale green bon-bon, made of herb-flavored foam, I think, which had been frozen with nitrogen. It tasted fine, but was probably not worth all the chemical processes it required. My husband tried a forkful of the greens, thinking it was the salad course. I should have told him I'd already inspected it and found dirt underneath. It was ground-cover.

The next course was rack of lamb with a single canneloni of kale, chestnuts, and mushrooms in hazelnut juice. The canneloni was light and rich at the same time; the lamb was tough and bland. Inedible, I decided. I drank tiny sips of wine, which I'm not supposed to have.

I tasted my roll: dark, like pumpernickel, and dipped in chocolate! When I worked in a French restaurant the summer before college, I liked to eat pumpernickel rounds spread with chocolate frosting. I'd completely forgotten how well the two go together. There's not much new under the sun.

Dinner continued downhill. Dessert was a sinister-sounding parfait of grapefruit, grapefruit sorbet, wasabi jelly, wasabi-pistachio crunchies, and wasabi cream, topped with a pistachio cookie. The gentleman on my right described wasabi to me, "It will blow your head off." He is head of marketing for one of the world's largest media conglomerates, but that didn't stop me from making him taste the dessert first. His head remained attached, but neither of us liked it.

I was happy when tea and chocolates arrived, but my first eager bite revealed liquid smoke or something similar as the flavoring. This meal was getting silly. (What would be next? Mothball-flavored mints?) I ate some ginger-flavored chocolates to kill the taste. 

Finally it was time to walk back to our hotels to sleep or endure jet-lag between absurdly high-thread-count sheets. I realized I was having a really good time. (France will do that to you.) And I hadn't eaten any sod. 

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