Monday, January 20, 2014

Gin Rummy on the Gulf of Mexico

Gin Rummy on the Gulf of Mexico
Headed home over a sea prairie
the Gulf of Mexico
playing gin two miles above the ocean floor.
A lonely container ship passes in a southbound lane
I think it would wave if it could.
Sea air cools, clouds stack up on the northern horizon,
thunder rumbles in the distance like
Tuesday morning’s garbage truck.
Tomorrow? Cats, mail, a week of newspapers,
a long list of things to do.
Today?  More gin rummy with a view.
I’m winning 18 games to 12.
Day 7 on Norwegian Dawn in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.


Party on the Docks

Party on the Docks (Cozumel)
Two liners bob nose to tail, tail to nose.
Main street on the quay hums with
reggae and carib beats, bouncing off
steel hulls, tropical cacophony.
Line dancers, stilt walkers, crew
clap, cheer, sing, stomp, dance
welcoming the last of the days
travelers, back to the ship.
We hang over the balcony
snapping photos, waving
wishing we hadn’t come back so early
missing the party below
but then, there was that delicious afternoon nap.
Cozumel on Norwegian Dawn, Day 6

Rainy Season in Belize

Rainy Season in Belize
The rainy season clings to the land of George Price
hollows and fields drown,
stilted houses, shacks really, teeter alongside
water laden groves of papaya, banana, coconut
roads which may have once seen asphalt, or not,
harbor muddy ruts
making for slow going for the train of tour buses
come to tread the steps of Altun Ha.
Mayans, once a million strong, where now 300,000 abide
Conquered the rainy season once
Only to be undone by the dry.
Altun Ha out of Belize City, day trip from Norwegian Dawn.

First Sunrise

First Sunrise
Dimpled gunmetal gray seas
thin line of molten orange
slices gray from gray.
A single cloud, heavily laden, 
reaches down, spills over
to feed the sea.

On board the Norwegian Dawn. Day Two.

Leave Taking

Leave taking
The horn sounded. We slipped silently from the dock
like a wraith moving in mist. 
Terns, gulls, pelicans flew alongside
diving for fish churned up in our wake.
Gangs of sea ducks raced low across glassy waters
in vees and doubleyous
faster than the ship
faster than anything
zipping quick across the bow, fearless.
The sun began its setting in magenta clouds.
We glided under glistening arches of the Skyway
hazy in pink, rose, orange.
A dolphin played peek-a-boo off the port bow.
Just one, shy, not interested in having its photo taken
next to such a huge thing.
day one of seven day cruise on Norwegian Dawn

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Costa Maya?

Costa Maya?

White floating cities cluster
giants at the end of a dock
beaten by wind
baptized by waves.
Streams of sunhats with legs
braid to shore dancing
to Ricky Martin,  Gloria Estefan
like happy lemmings on holiday.
Everything is for sale
one hundred types of Tequila,
diamonds in all colors, superhero statues,
because nothing says Mexico
like Thor and the Justice League,
maracas, bracelets “whit” your name,
watches, skimpy sundresses with parrots
wooden dolphins and plaster toucans
duffles with NFL logos, tshirts
with Mayan temples
gold chains, antibiotics, and retin-A.
Raucous dancing, whistles
blast out from Senor Frogs.
Customers drink fancy rum drinks
from foot and a half long plastic palms
happy to be out of the rain, 
wishing for sun.
Brass studded mariachis
sing Guantanamera next to 
the giant polychrome jaguar head
in front of a sea of faces 
obscured by point and shoots.
Feathered dancers with painted faces
stand  in front of the arched entrance
next to the bathrooms
trilling songs of their ancestors,
in theory.
Frigate birds, terns, pelicans hover over
dolphin pools hoping to outsmart
their not so fortunate captive cousins
for fish treats, while
waiting for the white wedding cakes
to cast off
leaving them the beach and sea.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Best of the Bests for 2013

     Before 2014 gets going with a whoosh and a bang, I want to to reflect on the many traveling "bests" we enjoyed this year whether it was far afield in Montreal, along the Mississippi River, in a wintry New York City or closer to home in St Pete. Jerry and I know how fortunate we are to have the time, good health, and resources to travel the way we do and we make the most of it. But isn't just places or meals or sunset views that bring us happiness. Our travels are filled with opportunities to meet people, moments to reflect on history and culture, time to enjoy the bounty of nature, and space for reflection. It is the richness of experience that calls us to travel. 

     Here are a few "snapshots" of what we loved in our travels this past year.

Best Breakfast: We love a good breakfast to start the day whether at home or traveling. These three spots tied for honors in 2013: 
      Voula's Offshore Cafe, Seattle, WA
      Beauty's Lunchonette (since 1972), Montreal, QC
      Slim Goodies, New Orleans, LA

Best Birthday Celebration: Celebrating Canada Day (July 1) with thousands of Canadians in the Old Port of Montreal, complete with cake, bagpipers, and the swearing in of new Canadian citizens.

Best Scenic Drive: Highway 1 on the Oregon Coast on a misty day.

Best Animal Kiss: Giraffe at San Diego Safari Park (they have reeaally long tongues)

Best Oddball Museum: The Seattle Pinball Museum. For just $13 we played for hours on 50 well-maintained machines dating from the late 50s to present day. 

Best Farmers Market: Hands down:  Marche Jean Talon in Montreal. Jerry's favorite farmers market anywhere in the world. It's our first "pilgrimage" stop every time we arrive in Montreal. 

Best Pie Shop: Rustique Pie Kitchen in St. Henri neighborhood of Montreal. Delicious mini pies and all sorts of other goodies. My favorite? lemon pecan...maybe the s'more pie? 

Best Donuts: A tie between The Donut Den in Nashville and Randy's Donuts in Inglewood (right near  LAX airport). Both places have the fantastic maple donuts. Randy's rocks the french cruellers. Although Tim Horton's in Quebec has the fantastic french cruellers, too.  Does anyone still wonder why I'm not a size 8?

Best Foodie Adventure: A May weekend in Montreal with my mid-twenties son and his friend Louise. We ate and walked and ate some more. Restaurants? Au Pied de Cochon, Garde Manger, Toque!, Beauty's Luncheonette, the Creperie at Marche Jean Talon, and Rustique Pies.

Best Winter Meal: Any meal at Hearth in New York is a great meal, but our meal with our son on a cold day in the middle of winter was spectacular. Hearty food, delicate gnocchi, great service, and long talks over wine. Perfection. 

Best Oysters: For west coast oysters: Taylor Shellfish Farms Melrose Market in Seattle. For east coast oysters: Maestro S.V.P in Montreal. 

Best Opportunity to Eat Lots of Pie: Judging at the National Pie Championships in Orlando. Nothing quite like sharing a weekend with a couple hundred pie-loving judges and 400 contestants from all over the U.S. 

Best Way to Work off some of that Pie: Three afternoon/evenings at Walk Disney World: EPCOT, The Magic Kingdom, and the Animal Kingdom.

Best Ride on Public Transit: The Charles Street Trolley in New Orleans on a warm summer night.  Close second? Sausalito ferry on a sunny day (love that view of the Golden Gate bridge).

Best Meal in San Francisco: Spruce.  The meal was excellent, inventive without being unnecessarily over the top. Fresh, quality ingredients. And, a young man who we've known since he was 8 works in the kitchen. It was really something to look through the viewing window to see him do his stuff. It was just yesterday we were fishing on Lake Bonaparte and roasting marshmallows over a campfire. 

Best Bookstore: Elliot Bay Books on 10th Avenue in Seattle (Capitol Hill). I could move in and stay.

Best Bookstore Celebrating It's 80th Birthday: Haslam's New and Used Books, St Petersburg, FL. An integral part of the St Pete community for 80 years, they threw a great party! 

Best Luxury Hotel: The Hermitage in Nashville. Jerry's favorite anywhere, any year. An oasis in the middle of the wonderful madness of Nashville during the CMA Music Fest every June. Love the "cookie hour" in late afternoon.

Best Bed & Breakfast (with a talented piano playing owner): J.N. Stone House and Musicale, Natchez, MS. 

Best Lodging with a Twist: The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, MS: A motel made up of  resurrected share cropper cabins and cotton gins on the old Hopson Plantation located in the cradle of Delta blues music.

Best Fruit Stand: Dickey's Peaches in Musella, GA. Late May to early August is peach picking time and they always have fresh peaches for sale. We love to sit and watch the sorting and packing operations while wiping the peach juice from our chins. A third generation tradition in central Georgia.

Best BBQ on the road:   Blackstrap BBQ in Verdun, Montreal. 

Best BBQ close to home: Fred Fleming's on 4th Street North in St Pete, FL

Best Cemetery: Cote des Neiges, Montreal. Beautiful and monumental headstones and crypts that tell stories covering 150 years in the lives (and deaths) of Montrealers. 

Best Botanical Garden Display: Montreal Botanical Gardens with this year's astonishingly imaginative and artful Mosaiculture International Competition and the always delightful Butterflies Go Free Display.

Best Bridge: The art deco  bridge in Florence, Oregon (Hwy 101) 

Best Scenic Drive: Highway 101 in Oregon from Coos Bay to Lincoln City.

Best Piggy Bank: The big bronze pig, Rachel, at the Pike Place Market in Seattle. 

Best Place to Buy Flowers: Pike Place Market in August...dahlias are in full bloom. 

Best Concert:  Thursday Night (first of 4 nights) at the CMA Music Fest in Nashville. (Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band.

Best Concert While Freezing our Fannies Off: Alan Jackson at the Plant City Strawberry Festival (yes it was cold in Florida, in the 40s cold)

Best Snoball: Rootbeer flavored snoball from the guy in the French Market in New Orleans.

Best Snoball outside New Orleans: the Snoball shack in Treasure Island, FL 

Best High Tea: Queen Mary Tea Room in Seattle (ask to sit by the doves)

Best Baseball Game: Any day the Tampa Bay Rays are playing at home at the Tropicana Dome. But especially Opening Day when I got to help unfurl the ginormous American Flag on the field before the game. 

Best Lonely Lighthouse: The lighthouse standing guard over the Louisbourg Harbor in Cape Breton. Just us and a few seagulls and the Atlantic Ocean stretching out to Ireland.

Best Lobster Roll: Thirsty Whale in Bar Harbor, Maine. Had a great game of dominoes in between bites of oh so fresh from the seas lobster.

Best Pilates Session while Traveling: Simply Balanced in Nashville, TN. Our classes there have become a tradition helping to unkink our muscles after boot scootin' at the nightly concerts at the CMA Music Fest. 

Best Cruise: Holland America's autumn cruise from Boston to Montreal through the Canadian Maritimes on the Maasdam.

Best Fireworks: Montreal's Annual International Firework Competition held for two months each summer. Weekly fireworks set to music created by the best talent in the pyrotechnic world. 

Best Temporary Exhibit at a Museum: The Beatles retrospective at the Musee Pointe-a-Calliere in Montreal. 

Best Cat: The gray mouser that hung out on the porch of our sharecropper cabin at Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, MS.

Best Author's Reading: A tie: Jeff Klinkenburg at the Inkwood Bookstore in Tampa and Khalid Housseini at Tampa Theatre.

Best College Campus for Birding:  Eckerd College in St Petersburg, FL. Roseate spoonbills, nesting osprey, white ibis, egrets, and herons. 

Best Bird Sighting of the Year: Sandhill Crane families with little chicks just east of Sarasota, FL. Close second: nesting owls in Fort de Soto Park, St Pete, FL.

Best Koi Pond: Marie Selby Gardens, Sarasota, FL

Best Banana Cream Pie (my husband's favorite): Yoder's Amish restaurant in Sarasota, FL (yes there are Amish in Florida too...they drive three wheeled bikes instead of horse drawn buggys.)

Best Cabins at a State Park: Spacious well maintained log cabins (made from cabbage palm trunks) built in the 30s by WPA work crews at Myaaka State Park in Florida (just east of Sarasota).

Best Sunset: The view across the Mississippi River from Natchez Under the Hill, MS. 

Best Place to Spot Gators: Myaaka State Park (especially on Lake Myaaka...take the boat ride).

Best Shelling: Sanibel Island, Fl

Best New Find in Tampa: The Oxford Exchange: bookstore, coffee/tea bar, gift store, and bistro. A place to pause and reflect in comfort.

Best Local Festival/Fair: The Plant City Strawberry Festival in Plant City, FL. I dream all year about their strawberry shortcake, chocolate dipped bacon, and concerts. 

Best Local Market: Mazzarro's Italian Market in St Petersburg. From cannoli to fresh bread, excellent meats to fine cheeses, house made pasta to salame, coffee bar to lunch counter, this is THE place to go.

Best Way to Start a New Year: Watching the first sunset of the year with picnic and champagne on the beach in Pass-a-Grille (St Pete Beach), Florida with our grown son. Watching he and his Dad walk along the surf line deep in conversation is great way to start a New Year.

Best Time with Our Grown Son: Our two week drive from So Cal to Seattle. 

Best Friday Night Date: Shuffleboard with my husband at the St Petersburg Shuffleboard Club celebrating 100 years of operation. (And shuffleboard isn't just for old folks anymore, lots of "younguns" on dates and families with kids...great fun).

Best Family Meal: Christmas Day Dinner at the Olympic Fairmont Hotel in Seattle. 

Best Time with Old Friends: This is a hard pick as we had many fun visits this year. But for sheer volume and amount of laughter, the winner this year would be my 40th high school reunion (El Rancho High School, Pico Rivera, CA).  There is something about discovering that we may have more wrinkles but we don't have less fun.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Wanna play? Tortoise at Boyd Hill Preserve

Two gopher tortoises at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St Pete, Florida. Just after this photo, they "raced" off to their underground burrow. We had either disturbed them or perhaps they had a nap in mind.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sharks, Seahorses, and Somersaulting Otters, What Could Be Better?


 A 10-year old boy giggled while he took a video of a playful otter turning somersaults over and over and over and over. The only thing that separated them was a glass panel and a few inches of air space. The otter played and the boy was entranced. It was just another day of magic at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
     Designed to take visitors on a journey from Florida’s fresh water springs to the open water of the Gulf of Mexico, the aquarium is a great opportunity for young and old alike to learn about Florida and the bounty of its waters and related habitat.
    There are otters and turtles, roseate spoonbills and ibis, small fish and large sharks. Ethereal jelly fish, no bigger than limes, float and dance in darkened tanks. Seahorses glide through coral curling their tails around branches and each other. Divers swim with sharks while chatting with an attentive audience gathered in front of the big tank.
     The Aquarium also provides the opportunity to get outside on Tampa Bay with dolphin cruises throughout the day in search of the 500 wild dolphins that call Tampa Bay their home.
     For children who want to have an adventure of their own, there is an outdoor play area complete with shooting fountains of water, waterfalls, mist areas, and a giant sand box beach.

     Covered patio areas with tables provide comfortable spots for lunch. Food (hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza) and drink are available.
     The Aquarium is located on Channelside near the SS American Victory Museum Ship (Station 7 on the Teco Streetcar Line). Convenient parking is adjacent to the aquarium.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Oxford Exchange: My New Favorite Spot in Tampa

The Oxford Exchange is my new favorite place in Tampa.

First, there are books. Not just any books, but a well curated selection of books on interesting subjects well displayed with helpful hints from bookstore staff. The room is light filled and comfy chairs give you a spot to peruse your selections. I couldn't leave without at least a couple new books to add to the pile on my bedside table.

Then, a walk down a richly, wood paneled hallway leads to a coffee/tea bar featuring local favorites Buddy Brew Coffee and Tebella Tea. There are large sofas, comfy chairs, high top tables, and bar seating. There was a nice vibe in the air as friends and associates chatted over a cup of brew. Jerry and I sat at a high-table and enjoyed an espresso and iced coffee before heading to ...

...the restaurant. Chef Erin Guggino creates fresh, simple, flavorful meals served in a high-ceilinged, high-windowed room or the adjacent atrium. The menu emphasizes seasonal, local, and organic ingredients. Currently, it is open for breakfast and lunch (I bet regulars secretly hope they start opening for dinner).  Jerry had the chicken chili. I had a delicious, light fish soup. And, we shared the spicy fried chick peas. Yum.

And last, but not least, are the treasures waiting to be found at the Shop at Oxford Exchange. The shop has a smart collection of home d├ęcor pieces, vintage finds, and gifts.  

The Oxford exchange is located in a lovingly restored old building across the street from the University of Tampa at 420 West Kennedy.  Parking is available on the Grand Central Avenue side of the building.  The Oxford is open until 5:30 PM, Monday - Saturday and 5:00 PM on Sunday, so no date nights for us there...yet. 

For more information as to hours, menu, and offerings: Visit them on twitter at @oxfordexchange. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watch Baseball in Comfort in Downtown St Pete.

Don't let the baseball purists tell you otherwise. Watching the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball in the air-conditioned  Tropicana Dome is pure comfort!

Our crazy section attendant Eddie, during the 7th inning stretch

Players may like real grass. Some fans may believe that it is part of the game to sit in heat and humidity or endure long rain-delays.

But not these fans.  And fans we are.  We're season ticket holders who even when traveling follow games on and twitter. We love our Tampa Bay Rays, we just don't love sweltering in the sun or huddling on a concourse while a thunderstorm passes.

There is nothing, nada, not a thing pleasant about sitting in a stadium on days when it is 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity outside. And, we're happy to be inside on those afternoons when pop-up thunderstorms, pop up right over southern Pinellas County sending lightning, hail and water spouts right into downtown St Petersburg.

Lucky for us, all we have to worry about is the walk to and from where we parked the car.

Once in the Tropicana Dome, we can head straight to Section 301 with a few detours for beignets, BBQ pork and hand-carved turkey sandwiches, and fresh squeezed lemonade. 

The Trop is a great venue for visitors to enjoy baseball. Rays fans are in general a friendly bunch (except to loud-mouth Yankee fans...sorry if you are one of them...consider yourself warned).

Rusty Kath provides entertaining in-house emceeing (listen for his occasional pithy remarks dropped in among the latest announcement of who has won Pepsi Bottle Race). 

Rays players often sign autographs right before the game down by the Rays dugout.  On Family-Day Sundays, there may even be autograph tables set up at the edge of the field for the latest favorites. 

The price of tickets is very affordable especially compared to many other stadiums MLB.

Food is good baseball park fare. We love the BBQ pork sandwiches from Everglades BBQ or the fresh carved turkey sandwiches from The Carvery.

Come up to Sections 300, 301, or 302 and join legions of season ticket holders who know the best kept secret in the Trop. High seats behind home plate? You can see everything! The prices are great and we have the craziest section attendants!

Parking is available at the Trop and at private lots north of the field.  Parking on 13th Street north is free if you get there early enough to get a space. A free shuttle is available from downtown St Pete parking structures (about 1 mile down central) with parking at the downtown lot just $5.

Check out the Rays website for special concert nights during the summer. Have small kids? Most Sundays are Family Days. Kids can run the bases after the game.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Ribs Were Worth The Fall

Let's just say I'm happy that there was no one with a video camera in front of Fred Fleming's BBQ last night. 

Driving home from the airport we decided to pop into Fred's BBQ for take-out ribs, beans and slaw. It was late, we were hungry, we'd been traveling most of the day, and neither of us remembered what was in the refrigerator, if anything. 

I was hungry, so I over-ordered. 

So there I was with two big sacks full of ribs and things and sauce. 


Thunderstorm just off to the north. 

I was practically skipping out of the door to the car,  when in the dark I did not see the BRIGHT yellow line denoting the edge of a small curb. 

Jerry said, "I saw you coming, and then all of a sudden, you weren't there anymore. I thought, did she forget something?"

Then he saw the top of my head, then my nose, as I pulled myself up by the door handle of the car, gingerly testing if ankle and knee still worked.

"What happened?" It was all I could do to keep from saying "whaddya think?"

Instead..."I knee hurts...but I saved the ribs."

(p.s. bruised, scraped, sore, but I'm all in one piece. the ribs? worth the fall)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sounds of the Old Port of Montreal

     The window is open in our living room with a cool breeze flowing in under gray skies. Sounds from the old port of Montreal float in on the breeze keeping us company as we read. 

     The Holland America Line's Maasdam just left the old Port. With three long mournful bellows from its horns it pulled slowly away from the Quay Alexandra.  Hundreds of people lined the decks under colorful maritime flags flapping from lines draped across the ship. The big liner headed north for its seven-day journey down the St Lawrence River out to the Atlantic Ocean and then to Boston. 

     Shortly after the echoes of the ships horns had quieted, the bells of the Basilica of Notre Dame peeled celebrating a wedding. Children chased each other around the pond across the street, squealing and giggling as they played a version of catch-me-if-you-can. A little girl stood alone to one side twirling an umbrella shaped just like a giant ladybug. 

     The sun has now set although the sky is still light even at nine o'clock. The symphony of sparrows, blackbirds, and robins has ended with the coming darkness. I hear the hum of cars, the bass beat of car radios, the whistle of a traffic cop directing traffic down at St Laurent, and the clip-clop of a horse pulling a bright pink caliche filled with tourists chatting in a language I don't recognize. A neighbor carries on a conversation with his labrador retriever on their last walk for the evening. The murmurs and laughter of friends and lovers, parents and children, tourists and neighbors dance up in the air making for a pleasing evening chorale.

     We sit and listen, aware of our good fortune to be in this place at this moment, enjoying the sounds of Montreal


Eating Our Way Through Montreal, So What's New?

It is summer and we are in Montreal, escaping for a few weeks the heat and muggies of St Pete, FL. There are many things we love about Montreal: the weather, the charm of the city's streets, the musicality of the French language, and the walkability of the many diverse neighborhoods. But the thing we love the most about Montreal is its love affair with food.  From the bounty of fresh products at the City's many farmers markets to the incredible diversity of offerings at restaurants, we love to eat in Montreal.  We've been in Montreal for just shy of 3 days now and already we've tried out some of the new food trucks that have hit the street scene in Montreal this summer, perused new fine food boutiques, and revisited some of our favorite markets. Here is a quick review of our far.

We arrived in Montreal on a cool, drizzly night. Hungry, we parked our car, and set off for a light dinner before unloading and settling into our flat. 
A block away is Communion which is set in the corner of a 150-year-old stone building facing onto Rue de La Commune. We had a light dinner of a mesclun salad with candied walnuts and a delicate balsamic vinegarette. Jerry thought it too plain, I thought it just right. We shared a charcuterie plate of slices of chorizo, blood sausage salami, liver pate salami, cornichons, bits of lardon, and a fresh baguette.
There was a pleasant, friendly hum to the place.  Light jazz mingled with happy conversations. The glass of Clockspring Zinfandel was the perfect companion for the evening's meal. 
Happily fed, we walked to our flat hand in hand in a soft rain.  Montreal had once again welcomed us with good food and safe haven.  
Satay Brothers,  Atwater Market, and Rustique Pies
We slept in late after the previous day's long journey.  After a cup of coffee and the Montreal Gazette, we set off for the market.
Marche Atwater is located along the historic Lachine Canal in an art deco building built in 1933 for the market. Open year round, the market is at its most beautiful in the summer.  Plant nurseries set up shop with hundreds of blooming plants for gardens and terrasses.  Quebec berries are at their best and stalls are laden with tiny strawberries, plump raspberries, and firm blueberries, freshly picked and trucked to market.
Under brightly colored tarps, the outdoor food stalls serve up sausages, freshly squeezed juices, nuts, pastries and at Satay Brothers...satay. Our first experience at Satay Brothers was in their "winter" brick and morter shop on Rue St Jacques.  But come fair weather, Satay Brothers move their operation back to Marche Atwater where it all started.
We had 6 skewers of the Satay du Jour (chicken) and their pork bun sandwiches.  Refreshing and tasty.  Good as we had remembered. We'll be back. 
After a walk through the market buying tomatoes and a basket of berries we were off to the St-Henri neighborhood of Montreal to my favorite pie shop, Rustique Pies. For my previous post on Rustique, click here.
We sat in the sun at a small round table set just inside the big storefront window and ate three small round delights: Banana cream, lemon meringue, and peach cobbler pies. As good as I had remembered.  We bought six to-go, with plans to return for more on the weekend.
No, I never lose weight when visiting Montreal.  Its a good thing we walk a lot when we visit.

The Best of Italy in Montreal's Little Italy

Nicola Travaglini opened his fine food boutique last fall hoping to share the delicious bounty of Italy with the food lovers of Montreal. He has succeeded and then some. Travaglini and his business partner Domenico Armeni have created an inviting corner shop located near Marche Jean Talon in Montreal's Little Italy.

Shelves are stocked with the best pastas, sauces, tomatoes, and spices. Delicious breads and pastries are made on the premises. An excellent selection of salumi and speciality cheeses decorate well-lit cases. Two large communal tables in the center of the store hum with the chat of contented lunch-goers as they enjoy pastas, soups, or sandwiches. 
We had the chance to chat with the effervescent Domenico Armeni, born in Calabria Italy but a long-time resident of Montreal. Armeni was chef-owner of Lucca's in Little Italy until he sold it a few years back. He was in his element as he strolled through the shop chatting with customers. He is clearly proud of what they have created at Nicola Travaglini.
I asked him about a delicious looking "something" in the pastry case. Armeni explained it was a Crostata e Noci, a thick crusted Crostata filled with a concoction made of caramel, hazelnuts, almonds, pistaccios and raisins. He leaned forward and almost in a whisper said, "even better than the filling? the crust...I love the crust." crostata to go!
And we'll be back.

The Food Truck Army has landed in Montreal

Dim sum, gourmet hot dogs, pad thai noodles, meatballs, sausages, grilled cheese sandwiches, Vietnamese spring rolls, flaky pastry treats...all this and more will be served via food trucks this summer in Montreal.

After a 50 year ban on street food, the City of Montreal has joined the latest culinary trend. Twenty seven trucks have been approved by the City and will be allowed to serve from 7am to 10pm in nine pre-determined spots around the City. The food trucks will rotate on a selected schedule available at the website listed below if you want to know who is serving what and where.

This year, the food truck "season" will be from June 20th to September 29th.

We arrived in Montreal for a two week visit and made a beeline straight to the small group of trucks located at Mill and Rue de La Commune along the Lachine Canal in the Old Port of Montreal. First up, was Le TukTuk serving delicious Thai fare. We tried the Pad Thai poulet (chicken) and the Green Papaya salad. Both were delicious.

We ate on a picnic table conveniently nestled under a group of trees near the trucks. While eating, we watched hungry eaters line up at the Montreal Dim Sum truck. After polishing off the generous portion of Pahd Thai, I couldn't resist. The "trio" of dim sums were fresh, hot, and scrumptious. 
So, we're two down and only 25 to go. We've got our work cut out for us on this trip.

Jerry's Favorite Treat: Fresh Sausage on a Stick

Whenever we visit Montreal, we always visit Marche Jean Talon within the first day or two of our trip. Why? Because Jerry needs his sausage-on-a-stick fix. 
We also go for the eggs, the berries, fresh asparagus, crepes, coffee, mushrooms, and more. But that is another story. This story is about sausage.

We have two favorite spots in the market that are conveniently within a couple stalls from each other.  
La Volailler du Marche offers 100% natural sausages made from boar, beef, pork, chicken, duck, deer, and lamb. The sausage can be purchased as single 2-inch lengths on a stick or as a "kebab" with 8 different types of sausage on the stick. We opted for the 8-on-a-stick which was a good way to sample all the different types of sausage they sell.

Balkani's serves large "hot dog" sized grilled sausage. They are served either on a bun or on a stick. Varieties vary. Today's offering were "spicy" or "sweet". Jerry opted for spicy. The sausage was juicy and full of flavor. Just the right meal for a cold, rainy day in Montreal.



Friday, June 21, 2013


Where can you find thousands of snowy egrets nesting on man-made stilt platforms, a rock salt deposit as deep as Mt Everest is tall, and a factory producing over 700,000 bottles of a fire-hot, red sauce a day? Only one place in world, Avery Island, LA, home to the world-famous Tabasco sauce. 

Located three hours west of New Orleans through hilly, marshy Cajun Country,  Avery Island is where Tabasco sauce was created in 1868.  Edmund McIlhenney, a banker, married into the Avery family and settled on Avery Island in New Iberia Parish. Given some exotic pepper plants by a friend, McIlhenney experimented with creating a spicy sauce that would liven up often mundane fare. In 1870, he patented his special recipe and process that is still used today to create the red hot sauce sold in over 165 countries around the world. 

Still family-owned and operated, the Tabasco factory is open for tours (free of charge).  The factory produces over 700,000 bottles of the red (and now sometimes green) sauce four days a week. The sauce is bottled after it has aged in white oak barrels previously used to make whiskey at the Jack Daniels Distillery. 

The tour provides a short and interesting video about how (and where) the peppers are grown, harvested, turned into mash and then sauce for bottling.  If you visit on bottling day, you can watch the busy bottling room as all that fire-hot goodness is poured, capped, and labeled in those trademark long-necked bottles.  

The last room has an interesting exhibit of old advertising campaigns and a chance to get up close and personal with the pungent pepper "mash" that eventually becomes Tabasco sauce. 

A country store with a broad veranda and chairs for sittin' is filled to the rafters with Tabasco brand clothes, tchochkes, and foodstuffs. Tabasco bottle earrings anyone? How about a string of Tabasco bottle Christmas lights?  Yep, I bought them both. 

After visiting the Tabasco factory, it is a good time to drive around the "island" a bit.  Avery Island is actually a series of hills that rise up above a vast marsh wetland. Underneath Avery Island is a vast deposit of rock salt that is estimated to be as deep as Mount Everest is tall.  Mining of the salt deposit has been ongoing since the late 1800s and is expected to continue into the long-distant future.  As it is on the "other" side of the hill from where tourist visit there is no visible sign of the salt mine operations. 

Just a short 2 minute drive from the Tabasco Factory is Jungle Gardens with its famous Bird Island. In the late 1890's the founder's son, E.A. McIlhenney created what is now known as Bird Island.  He raised snowy egrets in captivity on Avery Island and then set them free to migrate. Each year a group would return to nest on the island.  McIlhenney created a series of nesting platforms that rise up on stilts over the bayous. Over 120 years later, those first eight egrets raised by McIlhenney, are now thousands of snowy egrets which mass each spring in a squawking community of white to raise their young safely on a sprawling network of reed platforms.

As we walked out to the platforms, we could hear the birds from over 300 yards away in the parking lot. Squawking and squabbling in low-guttural tones they provided the background to the more refined tones of the frogs in the adjacent reeds. There were the "banjo plunking" frogs and the "sounds just like a sheep" frogs. It made for quite a rare, nature symphony.

Bird Island is on one side of Jungle Gardens also created by the McIlhenney family over the years. Its 170-acres sprawls along the Bayou Petite Anse.  Massive oak trees and thick stands of bamboo provide shade and cover for local birds, deer, and raccoons.  Small lagoons contain small alligators and turtles. The gardens of camellias and azaleas were not in bloom when we were there, but given the extent of the gardens and the size of the plants, it must be spectacular in season. 

It's possible to make a day trip to Avery Island from New Orleans if you leave early.  A more leisurely two days would give you the opportunity to linger a bit in New Iberia and Breaux Bridge in the heart of Cajun Country.  A loop tour is possible by traveling via Hwy 90 and Interstate-10. 

For more information about Avery Island and Tabasco products check HERE.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Shacking Up in the Cradle of the Blues

Me: Honey? Can we stay in a sharecropper’s shack when we’re up in Clarksdale next month?

Husband (looking up over his book): Does it have air conditioning?

Me: Yes, I see a window box a/c unit in the picture.

Husband: OK, if it will make you happy.

And that is how we came to spend two nights in a shotgun-style shack with a tin roof and Mississippi cypress walls on the Hopson Plantation just 3 miles east of Clarksdale, MS. And next to the plush Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, it was Jerry’s favorite stay of the trip.

The Shack Up Inn developed over the past 15 years on the Hopson Plantation in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of Blues music. Located just 3 miles east of Clarksdale, MS, there are over 30 “units” sprawled in a ramshackle fashion. They have been modified just enough so as to provide the modern amenities of an indoor bathroom and shower, heat and air conditioning, and coffeemaker/fridge/microwave and sink.
A visitor can stay in a former sharecropper shack, seed house, old tractor shed or in one of the newly created "bins" in the old cotton gin.

We stayed in the two-room Pinetop Perkins shack, named in honor of the legendary Blues pianist of the same name. A tall upright piano stood in the corner of the front room with a life sized mural of Pinetop smiling from the opposite wall. There were “dishtowel” curtains and old Mississippi license plates nailed down over holes in the bare wood floors. There was a  screened porch with rockers for sittin' which made for a fine early evening spot to wave to our neighbors and read in the fading light.

The Ground Zero Blues Club operates out of one half of the big old Cotton Gin building offering smokin’ blues and zydeco several nights a week. Donuts and coffee are available in the morning, beer and wine in the afternoon after 5 pm. The old gin has seen a lot of living and hard work in its decades of use. Now it provides for a place to sit, play and listen to the music that grew up out of all that living and hard work.

The complex is littered with ancient Ford and Chevy pick-up trucks, colorful bottle trees, a windmill, silos converted to shade structures, and even one of the first mechanized cotton-picking Int'l Harvesters.

The bottle trees (or “haint” trees for some) are common to the south and are believed to be a tradition brought by slaves from Africa. Now used primarily for garden decoration, the original belief was that a bottle tree outside of a home would attract evil spirits with the sunlight shining through the bottle. When evil spirits followed the light into the bottle, they were trapped and could do the house no harm. Blue bottles were thought to be the most attractive to the evil spirits.
We heard tell that when a strong wind is blowing that the bottle trees moan and whisper with the wind. Not hard to understand how some would believe they were filled with evil spirits. Now the colorful hand-made trees stand on the grounds of the Shack Up Inn dedicated to honoring the hard work and music of the Mississippi Delta, so perhaps now those bottle trees are simply joining in to sing the Blues.
From the Shack Up Inn it is an easy 3-mile drive west on Hwy 49 to Clarksdale's legendary juke joints and the Delta Blues Museum, Abe’s BBQ, and the childhood home of Tennessee Williams.

 More about all that in another post.