How to act cool when dining in a Michelin restaurant

Since I had children my culinary excursions have been dominated by the kind of restaurant that offers finger food or plastic cutlery in garish surroundings with a kindergarten-ambiance.

It’s fair to say that my standards have been significantly lowered since the days when I earned a decent salary and had a semblance of a life.

Out of my depth

Father and daughter

My dad, Deon, and I on his 70th birthday

So, when my dad offered to treat us with a meal at a 3-starred Michelin restaurant to celebrate his 70th birthday, I was over the moon, but out of my depth.

The world class L’Auberge du Vieux Puis, which I think can be loosely translated as the Inn of old powers – is hidden away in the unassuming village of Fontjoncouse with a mere 150 souls at the end of a beautiful, winding mountain road in the Languedoc region of France.

Since retirement, my parents spend most of their time eating and drinking wine in this beautiful part of France where they seem to have discovered their second wind and an almost indecent lust for life.

The Venue:

The restaurant is the pride and joy of chef Gilles Goujon, with whom I managed to sneak a photograph on my mobile phone to my husband’s embarrassment.

Chef and diner

Michelin crowned chef Gilles Goujon and moi

The restaurant is a delightful blend of old and new with a historic well in the front garden contrasted with sleek, contemporary lines, modern glass floor panels showcasing historic foundations and a selection of quirky artwork, including iron sculptures produced by an eccentric local artist.

Tip: Don’t forget your mobile phone for photographs, but try to be subtle so as not to alert the staff and other diners to the fact that you’re blown away

The Challenge

The crisp white linen tablecloth is covered with an array of cutlery (no plastic in sight) hinting at the number of courses to come.

My tummy does a little flip flop as it begins to grasp the enormity of what awaits.

My father selects an un-pronounceable local white wine, the first of many bottles to come, in a totally different class and budget to my daily Chardonnay.

Tip: Try not to think about the pair of shoes you could have bought for the same price as the dish you’re about to consume, as it is bound to sour the taste.

The Aperitif

wooden platter with food

Aperitif – bread balls with explosions of taste

To warm up our taste buds, we are presented with a selection of foreign-looking delicacies on a long wooden platter, accompanied by detailed descriptions from a waiter in perfect English.

The offerings include a bread ball that releases an explosion of wild mushroom juice into your mouth upon first bite, a second bread ball infused with liquid tomato, a mushroom tartelette and a fragile-looking mini squid pancake.  Every bite is sheer heaven!

Tip: Don’t ignore the waiter’s instructions. My husband, who usually tries to go against the stream, approached his plate from right to left instead of left to right, which meant the squid dominated the palate.

The Amuse Bouche

Amuse bouche - tomato in a gazpacho

Amuse bouche – tomato in a gazpacho

The pleasant little interlude consists of a pretty ball of tomato sorbet with buffalo mozzarella cheese interior and encrusted in sugar, floating in gazpacho water.

By now the wine and conversation are flowing and my taste buds are dazed and dizzy with excitement, wondering what had hit them.

The Entrées

My mouth literally hangs open as the waiter describes the entrée: A single king prawn entrapped in a delicate cage made of potato and squid ink on a bed of tomato and vegetable pasta, accompanied by another bread ball (clearly a Chef’s favourite) infused with the juice from the head of the king prawn and aside a clam filled with potato and chorizo paste.  My taste buds are in ecstasy.

prawn dish on a plate

King prawn encaged in squid and potato

The portions, though not small, are surprisingly light so I’m not as stuffed as I would expect to be at this stage and the next dish – I can’t remember what it’s called and I’m past caring – doesn’t disappoint:

Sea bass cooked in a Spanish carbon oven with roasted fennel seeds, baby octopus and cucumber of the sea on the side.

fish dish

Sea bass with cucumber of the sea

The Main Course

And now, for the piéce de resistance – the main course: Roasted pigeon!

pigeon dish

Piéce de resistance: Roasted pigeon!

I must admit when my dad told me earlier what to expect, I did experience a flickering of doubt. I’m not exactly a fussy eater and apart from liver and frog legs draped suggestively over a bowl once in a pretentious French restaurant in Cape Town, I can’t think of anything I won’t eat.

The pigeon – much like a chicken thigh – roasted in almond milk and accompanied by a roasted apricot on roasted fig, topped with mint and with roasted aubergine slices on the side, look and sound beautiful.

But the thought of the fat pigeons on our lawn back home and a taste strongly reminiscent of liver cause mutiny among my taste buds and I send the plate back with the pigeon barely touched.

Tip: Do not try to explain to the head waiter in a Michelin restaurant that the main course is not “quite your taste.” The hawk-nosed Frenchman looked incredulous and stomped off shaking his head in disgust at the sound of such un-culturedness.

The Cheese

cheese trolley in restaurant

Death by cheese

I know the French like their cheese, but I wasn’t expecting this. A three-tiered trolley laden with enough cheese to fill the English channel is wheeled to the table by a young waiter, who gives us a lecture about the origin, vintage, pedigree, etc of the selection on offer.

I suspect the waiter has been tipped off by the head waiter to approach me first for a good laugh, because when he asks Madame what she would like before anyone else – my mind goes blank.

Eventually, I plump for goat’s cheese – spicy and creamy with quince marmalade, feeling like I’d just flunked another important test, but the taste is so good, I couldn’t care less.

The Dessert

dessert dish with strawberries

Strawberry and citron delight

Always my favourite item on a menu – the dessert: strawberry and lemon sorbet swimming in strawberry Chantilly cream and surrounded by meringue sugar strands does not disappoint.

I also lust after my dad’s chocolate cherry maccarron with salted caramel.

Finally, we are presented with a little black box with a selection of handmade chocolates  – which we can’t finish despite our best attempts and so ends my first (and probably last) Michelin experience on a high note.

box of chocolates

Too stuffed for chocolate!

Tip: When you go to the bathroom, don’t worry about finding your way. Every time I got up from the table, I was led straight into the ladies by a sea of attentive waiters, who stopped short of offering to wipe my bum.  

Have you ever eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant – what did you think?

Advertisements

Why we don’t need more advice from Sheryl Sandberg

Photograph of Whyishersostroppy holding hand up against Sheryl Sandberg

No more, please Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl is the kind of woman who gets up my nose. I don’t so much resent that she’s loaded (400 million US Dollars), has the mother of all jobs (Facebook boss) and combines this with being a mum or even that she looks 10 years younger than me at the same age. (44)

Full of it 

What really bugs me is that she is so full of it. She just can’t stop rubbing our noses in it.  As if it’s not enough that she’s clearly made it big time, she can’t stop offering us pearls of wisdom on how we should all stop being such miserable failures and get this work/life balancing act sorted so we too could become millionaire superstars.

Her book Lean In warned that unless we lean into our careers when we start having babies, even if it takes breastfeeding during conference calls, we’ll never fulfill our potential. Well, thanks for that, Sheryl. See my thoughts on the book here.

Share the housework 

Her latest advice for working mums is even more enlightening.  Want to have it all? Just get your husband to do 50% of the household chores and child rearing. Simples.

This is according to her foreword in a new self-help book published in America (where else?): Getting to the 50/50: how working couples can have it all by sharing it all.

So the argument is that convincing men to share the chores provides women with more choices and benefits the men and kids too.  Although she and husband, Dave, “can afford exceptional childcare”, they still have difficult decisions about who will pick up the slack when the other can’t be there.

But they do aim for a 50/50 split (of the remaining 20% of duties presumably) because it’s fair and gives women more opportunities.

Really? To imagine anyone researching and writing a page, never mind a book about this, beggars belief. What exactly is there to research?

According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, just 10% of men do an equal amount of housework as their wives.

So, let’s see: do you think these women have better chances than the 90% whose husbands come home, dump their shoes in the entrance and ask: “What’s for dinner, dear?” Uh… yes,  duh!

How to get him off the couch

What would be infinitely more useful would be if Sheryl and her coterie of friends in the banking sector tell us just HOW we should get the lazy, spoilt, selfish bastards off the couch and emptying the bin without turning the marriage into a daily episode from Married with Kids.

At this point, I should confess that my husband actually does quite a bit around the house. Not quite 50% – not even close, but a decent amount. This is because he’s German and because I’ve become less willing to be his slave for little or no appreciation through the years.

So he’s quite comfortable ironing his own shirts, making the children’s lunchboxes, unpacking the dishwasher and packing away clothes.

Now, if only he did his 35% chores and parenting properly, without me having to go around and redo it, I would probably be heading for my first million by now.

Domestic god – yes please

But in my experience our set-up is quite rare.

Some men, the majority – have no idea how to hang up washing, would never dream of ironing their shirts and would be surprised to find out that toilets don’t clean themselves.

And the women will moan to their friends about having to carry the can, but would not really expect their husbands to touch a duster or look after the children they helped produce.

As a columnist wrote in the Sunday Times this week: “He is not a domestic god. I did not marry him for his ability with a duster.” She says she doesn’t find him sexy in this role.

Really, darling? So, he must have married you for your ability with a duster then. Do you also have to wear a short little skirt and apron while you clean up after him? How very convenient for her husband.

Getting away with murder

My mouth often hangs open when clever women tell me what their husbands get away with at home. They work so hard, must let them play more golf, go to the pub more often, go for boys’ weekends away, while you stay home, clean the house and look after his children. Not something Sheryl and her mates would put up with, I can assure you. But then, that’s everyone’s personal choice, isn’t it.

There are many reasons why women choose to let their men off the hook when it comes to sharing housework and parenting responsibilities. Cultural beliefs, buying into chauvinistic values, perfectionism and a fear of confrontation or turning marriage into a constant battlefield being some of them.

Personal choice

Each to her own. Some marriages may be better off without screaming matches about whose turn it is to take the bins out. Some women may choose not to lean into their careers because spending time with their children when they are little is more important to them than a million dollars.

I wish someone would tell Sheryl Sandberg to mind her own business and that we’re actually doing OK. We don’t need her advice, but her next book is probably already with the publisher:

How to raise successful children in 15 seconds a day. 

How will we survive until then?

Our very different Greek family holiday

Family on the beach in Porto Rafti

On the beach in Porto Rafti

PIcture the Greek island in the Mama-Mia movie – you know the one – with crystal waters, hills covered in crisp white buildings teeming with straw-hatted tourists.

Now wipe this image from your mind completely and imagine a very different Greece, a protected little bay on the mainland, which doesn’t have quite the postcard wow-factor of Mykonos or Santorini but which makes up for it a thousand times with glimpses of real Greek culture.

Where the Athenians go 

“Porto Rafti is where the Athenians go on holiday,” my friend Caroline (her of lunchboxworld.co.uk) had told me when she mentioned they would not be using their apartment in Greece this summer.

Fancying myself as the footloose, ‘off-the-beaten-track’ kind of traveller – and at the moment very much a budget traveller, I really liked the sound of this. I’d long ago made peace with the fact that unless I did a Shirley Valentine or won the lottery, I was never going to see Greece in August, so this seemed like an opportunity not to be missed.

On our 20-minute drive from Athens airport, half-finished buildings scarred the landscape confirming the country’s financial woes. It also became clear that Greeks do tacky quite well – judging from the glaring neon signs and shouting posters competing for the attention of drivers-by.

 Invitingly clear waters

Family in the water at Porto Rafti

Lukewarm, clear waters… perfect for cooling down

My sagging spirits lifted when the bay of Porto Rafti opened up in front of us in a tranquil late afternoon scene of invitingly clear waters and gently bobbing sailing boats.

An hour later we walked a few 100 metres down to the beach from the apartment to join extended Greek families for a sunset stroll along the promenade and a quick dip in the lukewarm ocean.

 Families are big

Families are big in Greece, in more ways than one. Several generations gather for lingering beachside picnics, chattering loudly and soaking up every last ray of sunshine.  Children are at the heart of every gathering, hunting for crabs in the rock pools with their nets, scootering in and out of the human traffic along the promenade or splashing around in the sea goggle-eyed.  We all loved swimming with goggles observing the sea life underneath, although the soukres or jellyfish that seem to creep up on you and can cause a nasty sting, were quite unnerving.

 Not a foreigner in sight 

Joining the Greeks in their worshipping of the sun and love of the sea in the almost complete absence of other foreigners, felt like a special privilege.

Skin cancer doesn’t seem to bother them much and everyone, including the 70-year-old ladies who bob up and down in the sea careful not to disturb their weekly blow-dries, is a deep coppery brown.

Me on the beach

Less obsessed with the body beautiful

The obsession with the body beautiful also seems less pronounced in these parts with fewer gym-toned physiques and a much more healthy spread of gracefully aging, normal flesh on display. Put it this way, I felt relatively comfortable in my costume, which doesn’t happen often.

A different kind of heat

It was August, so it was always going to be hot, but this was a different kind of heat – an oppressive force that slaps you down every time you try to get up and do something  constructive between noon and 5pm. In the end you stop fighting it. You have no choice, but to slow right down and even succumb to the odd Siesta. We found it to be a good time to play a selection of games in my friend’s family-friendly apartment.

After 5pm the port gets its second wind, restaurants start serving frappuccinos, ice cream parlours tempt with fresh flavours and families crawl out of their midday hiding places onto promenades and beaches for a second instalment of sun and sea.

To round off the day, the skies reward you with a spectacular Greek sunset like a changing artwork of watercolour pastels running into each other with dramatic effect.

 No English… not a word

I can’t remember when last in my life I’ve been to a place where you can’t get by with English. In most foreign cities people at least understand a few words.

But in Porto Rafti it soon became clear that English was really not spoken, not a word.

As adventurous, intrepid travellers, we loved being surprised when ordering food and trying helplessly to interact with friendly locals – a bit like trying to eat food without cutlery.

However, when my daughter fell down the marble stairs in the apartment block breaking a bone in her shoulder two days before the end of our stay and we needed to find a hospital, this became more of a challenge.

Broken arm  

Girl with arm in sling in Porto Rafti Bay

Paula with her broken arm in sling after falling down marble stairs in Porto Rafti

Through a miraculous series of coincidences we were directed via hand gestures, drawings and finally a few words of English from a helpful lady at the tollgate to a big state hospital, where my daughter was seen to within 20 minutes and we paid 6 Euro for an X-ray and a sling. The economy may be crumbling, but the state health service is still going strong.

 

Greek salads, fresh fish and souvlaki 

A plate of Greek salad

Greek salads to die for!

Boy eating fish

Fresh seafood: Lukas with a sardine hanging out his mouth…

Being on a budget, we didn’t eat in expensive restaurants, of which there are a few dotted along the pretty marina on the opposite side of the bay.  However, we did treat ourselves a few times to very reasonable Souvlaki – chicken or pork strips with trimmings in a deliciously doughy pita-bread, as well as fried squid, sardines and arrogant and generous helpings of Greek salad.

For one of our home-cooked meals we bought squid from the weekly food market and fried it in the pan, served with lemon and chunks of fresh bread from the bakery around the corner.  Delicious!

 In the footsteps of civilisation

Family in fornt of Akropolis in Athens

The Koscielnys in the footsteps of civilisation – on the Akropolis hill in Athens

We had great intentions of taking the ferry from the nearby harbour town of Rafina to one of the islands, but in the end we slowed down so much– that all we could muster was a one day-trip to Athens climbing up to the top of the hill of the Akropolis in searing  heat.

We were pushing the limits of the family with this outing, resulting in frayed tempers and tantrums – mainly from my husband – but the realisation that we were walking in the footsteps of civilisation, the impressive columns carved out of marble without the help of modern machinery and breathtaking views of Athens, made it all worthwhile in the end.

I’ve yet to experience the Greek Islands and maybe I’ll be blown away when I do, but Porto Rafti gave us a very different, affordable Greek holiday which felt authentic and most importantly forced us to calm down and relax.

Family in front of Akropolis ruins

Magnificent marble columns of the Akropolis in Athens

Have you been to Greece? Can you relate to our experience?  What did you think?

 

A strong Greek coffee