Out Of The Archives:
Mara’s Italian Pastries

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It’s almost impossible to walk by Mara’s Italian Pastries on Columbus in North Beach without stopping in for a pastry, a slice of focaccia or pizza, or a biscotti and a cup of espresso. At the very least you’ll want to stand at the storefront window for a moment and take in the beauty of all that pastry.

Mara’s pastries are crispy and flaky. Squeezing them a little to make them bite size, or breaking them apart, creates a free fall of crumbs. The almond croissants will give you a marzipan hangover, and the raspberry rings with chocolate are just lovely. Cannoli is the reason why many people stop in here after having dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, or before catching Beach Blanket Babylon which is right around the corner.

The pizza and focaccia are made in the Italian bakery style, not the restaurant style, and are not meant to be heated up, but rather eaten at room temperature, whatever that temperature is. Probably another thing to keep in mind is that the French pastries on offer will be made in an Italian style, so purchase without expectations and you might be delighted.

The pastries are not marked with name cards, so pointing here is allowed.

Mara’s Italian Pastries
503 Columbus Avenue
between Green & Stockton
San Francisco, CA 94133
415.397.9435

Hours: Su – Thu: 7am – 10:30pm; F – Sa: 7am – midnight

Out Of The Archives:
Sweet Crêpes

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Chestnut Crêpes in my kitchen

You can find many different kinds of Crêpes in Parisian restaurants and cafes as well as at the to-go windows of the Crêperies throughout the busy sections of the city. Filled with anything from ham and eggs to chantilly – whipped cream – these petite meals, or just plain treats, are easy to make and a truly versatile, standard fare in Paris!!

A Little History

French crêpes originated in Bretagne, in the west of France, although you will find a form of them throughout all the regions of Europe. Crêpes have probably been around since French cooks first started cooking with wheat. They are traditionally thought of as a French dish, but they have history in ancient Rome, as well as every other ancient culture that figured out how to mix up a batter and use a fire. The difference is that the French, of course, have made crêpe making into an art form!

Created as a substitute for bread when wheat was scarce, their main duty is to serve as a vehicle for transporting the fillings inside them. Crêpes can take on two forms, savory and sweet. Savory Crêpes, or Galettes, are heavy and earthy tasting, made with buckwheat flour. Sweet Crêpes are light and sweet and made with wheat flour and a little sugar. A meal made of crêpes can be easy and fun to make as well as filling.

The difference between pancakes and crêpes is that the crêpe batter is thinner and is spread very thinly with a long tongued spatula over the entire surface of the crêpe pan, while a pancake is made from a thicker batter that gets plopped by the spoonful onto a hot greasy skillet.

Crêpes!

A Basic Sweet Crêpe Recipe

This is a small recipe inspired by The Joy of Cooking and is enough for one person. To make more, just double or triple the recipe.

Ingredients:
1/4 cup flour – all purpose or pastry; whole wheat is too heavy so don’t use that
1/4 cup of milk of your choice
1/8 cup water at room temperature
1 egg
3 teaspoons of sugar – fine white sugar is best, turbinado is not a good choice for this recipe
1 tablespoon of melted butter
Pinch of salt

Powdered confectioner’s sugar to sprinkle on top.
Add a pinch, just a pinch, of cinnamon to the batter for flair.

Utensils:
Mixing bowl
A ladle, or 2 cup liquid measuring cup with a spout
Crêpe pan or a seasoned cast iron griddle will do, but a skillet won’t work for this project because it has sides which prohibit turning the crêpe
A long tongued metal spatula

Directions:
Combine all of the ingredients in the mixing bowl and stir until all the dry ingredients are moistened.
Let the batter stand for at least 30 minutes, until the flour has absorbed the moisture.
The batter can be kept in the frigo for up to 2 days.
Have your filling ingredients ready and handy.
Heat the griddle on a medium heat.
Rub the hot griddle with butter until it is covered.
Pour about two or three tablespoons of batter onto the center of the pan/griddle and spread it out with the spatula towards the edges of the pan, making it as thing as possible.
When the crêpe has set and the underside is a bit golden, use the spatula to turn the crêpe.
If you are making crêpes for a meal, then grab a plate. When the crêpe is done, spoon on the filling, spreading out over half of the crêpe.
Fold the crêpe in half, then in half again making a triangule shape.

Fillings:
Spread half of the crêpe with Nutella or another kind of melted or spreadable chocolate.
Warmed fruits such as sautéed apples or peaches, jams, sauces or fruit or nut purees make wonderful fillings.
Simple sweet crêpes can be solely brushed with butter for a simple treat.
Top sweet filled crêpes with whipped cream or dust with powdered sugar.
You can roll the crêpe into a cylinder around the stuffing rather than folding it into triangles.
Variations of crêpes are limited only by your imagination!

Serve warm.

Bon Appétit!

What Is Culture?

The other day, someone asked via twitter “What is culture?” It was asked in the context of travel, in the sub-context of cultural travel.

artist-at-large is all about cultural travel, but even though I can define culture for myself and how I travel, and in terms of this site, the question has had me thinking about the definition of culture, specifically how Americans today think of culture. How deep do they go when they travel for cultural reasons?

The etymology of the modern term “culture” has a classical origin. In English, the word “culture” is based on a term used by Cicero in his ‘Tusculan Disputations’, where he wrote of a cultivation of the soul or “cultura animi”, thereby using an agricultural metaphor to describe the development of a philosophical soul, which was understood teleologically (they involve aiming at goals) as the one natural highest possible ideal for human development. Samuel Pufendorf took over this metaphor in a modern context, meaning something similar, but no longer assuming that philosophy is man’s natural perfection. His use, and that of many writers after him “refers to all the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human” — Wikipedia

The idea of culture is complex and both broad and simplistic at the same time. It can be defined by one unifying and defining detail of a group – such as language, or diet, or even the landscape where the group resides. Or it can be broad in the sense that it is a common characteristic of all of humanity.

In the sense of cultural travel though, the idea is traveling to really experience the culture of a place – food, language, art, archaeology, history, education, community – not only how people in a certain place live in that moment, but how they have evolved or devolved over time, how they got to where they are.

What does culture, or cultural travel, mean to you?

A Day On The Wine Train

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Californians live within a car culture. For as much as we complain about having had to wait too long for our European style high speed trains to be built, we also won’t hesitate to hop in the car and drive up or down the coast for dinner.

So, while we are waiting, why not combine antique trains with good food and wine?

While it’s not easy to get to a lot of places (read: outside the urban area) from the East Bay on public transportation without first going over to San Francisco, people are becoming more aware of the fact that public transportation is important not only to the California travel experience, but for business in general. Which is why it was nice to hear that the Napa Valley Wine Train is commencing its shuttle connection between the North Concord/Martinez BART station and the Napa Valley Wine Train station in the town of Napa.

My Take On Napa Valley

There really is a lot to do in Napa Valley – most of which is centered around imbibing bottles of Cabernet, and eating wonderful local food while drinking that Cabernet. Personally, I like the drive up Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail, starting early in the day and stopping on a whim at whatever winery or food purveyor looks interesting. I like the randomness that comes with exploring. I can’t say that I’m even remotely fond of confinement, schedules, or tours. That being said, even while I’ve always thought of the the Napa Valley Wine Train as a very touristy thing to do, it has always been on the edge of my “things to do someday” radar.

Someday was yesterday.

My Napa Valley Wine Train Experience

My invitation came from Kira Devitt, the new Director of Marketing for the Napa Valley Wine Train and I have to say that my day was enjoyable because of her enthusiasm and knowledge of the train.

The train is made up of ten cars that are either dining, lounge, or kitchen cars along with the new “power” car that supplies energy to the rest of the train, taking the strain off of the two engines. Right after boarding, Kira gave me a personal tour of the entire train, talking as she went, giving me a history of the cars. She also talked about the history of the Napa Valley Wine Train project – which was not embraced enthusiastically by the wine community in the beginning. As Kira mentioned, land prices are high in Napa Valley and those last remaining train tracks take up about two rows of vines. But the train has now been operating for about twenty years and has brought some positive change to the Napa area during that time.

Politics aside, as the train left the station, we were distracted from the backyard scenery in Napa by our waitress offering us a complimentary glass of red and the waiter who brought us each a plate of antipasti with three cheeses wedges, fresh cherries, and bread to nibble while we waited for our lunch. We arrived into the vineyards soon enough, where the landscape of the valley was framed by the antique windows of our lounge car.

Our dining experience happened during the second seating of the Gourmet Express Lunch, on the return from Saint Helena. I was pleasantly surprised to find vegetarian fare on the menu. My only real complaint about that was that I wish there had been more than one vegetarian option. All of the meat groups were well represented on the menu.

My meal – Winter Squash Polenta with Spinach-Ricotta Portabella and Yam Stuffed Gypsy Pepper in a Tomato-Basil Coulis – was delicious, and filling. But the highlight was the Tiramisu Truffle at the end of the meal for dessert. No, wait, actually the highlight of the meal was witnessing an engagement between the couple sitting next to us and soon after, a table at the other end of the car bursting into their version of Happy Birthday. Everyone seemed to enjoy their food and Chef Macdonald does a mighty fine job as chef – not only cooking well on a moving train, but as a chef who is devoted to using fresh local ingredients in his menu.

I realized after the day’s journey, that the Napa Valley Wine Train isn’t, and isn’t even meant to be, a substitute for exploring the wine culture of the Napa Valley. Nor is it a tour. It is, rather, an experience in and of itself, all about food and wine, meant to be a celebration, an extension, of the Napa Valley experience.

My advice about the Napa Valley Wine Train would be – absolutely don’t make it your only Napa Valley experience and go with a large group of people so that you have a lot of opportunity for conversation and creating a party atmosphere. Think of it as a going out to lunch or dinner experience rather than a tour experience. Train buffs who are into restoration just might really love it. With the train’s beautiful restoration, Sci-Fi fans might find themselves expecting that Captain Mal or Brisco County, Jr. will bust through the door any minute. Most importantly, how entertained you are will really depend on the people that you go with.

* * * * *

Most of the images below were taken while the train was stationary, before the passengers came on board. After the fact I realized that I had not taken any wine images! The food images were a little too shaky, given that the train was moving while I was shooting them – so you will just have to go to experience the food and take your own images!

The Napa Valley Wine Train
1275 McKinstry Street
Napa, California 94559
t: 800.427.4124
twitter: @winetrain

To get there by using BART:
– Call the Wine Train and make your reservation at least 24 hours in advance.
– Get to the N.Concord/Martinez BART station before 9am.
– The Wine Train shuttle will be waiting for you in the pick up area of the N.Concord/Martinez BART station between 9am and 9:15am.
– Board the shuttle and you’re all set!

Coming Back:
– The shuttle leaves the train station parking lot at 4pm.
– This gives you about one and half hours to explore the town of Napa between the end of the train ride and the departure of the BART shuttle.
– Arrive N.Concord/Martinez BART station around 5pm (depending on traffic).
– Take BART back to your hotel or home!

Cost for taking the shuttle service (in 2013): Your BART ticket plus $30 for the shuttle, which is above the price of the Napa Valley Wine Train package.

Out Of The Archives:
Five Reasons To Visit Paris

 

Paris has changed quite a bit in the twenty-five years that I’ve been visiting her. She is becoming more of a global city, influenced not only by current events, but by the different cultures that have come to live within her periphique. If you have any kind of desire to go to Paris, just get on a plane right now and go! But if you are hedging between visiting Paris and any other city on the planet, here are my reasons to make the City of Light your top pick.

Un: Energy. Inspiration. Innovation. Abandon. Le vivre. The pursuit of enlightenment, French style. Not things to be seen, but rather a feeling that swims in the air. Paris is one of those places that just grabs you, hugs you, and gives you long slow kisses, sensually, without being too obvious about it, all before you even realize it. The French people on the other hand are a little more reserved, but they warm up. Nothing that a few words of practiced French won’t cure. Paris also has the nerve to make you think. She will inspire you and teach you, even if you aren’t expecting it. But if you are an artist at a loss for your next project, there’s nothing like a trip to Paris to get the inspirational wheels turning again.

Deux: Gastronomie! The food and drink in Paris really are fabulous. Whether you are eating sandwiches and quiches out of the boulangeries everyday or splurging on restaurants, a taste of France is not to be missed. Eating a true Parisian baguette with a slice of generic French brie alone is worth the airfare, let alone all the other wonders of the French palette – from crêpes to bouillabaisse. The lovely way that eggs taste like chicken and both always taste remarkably fresh is divine and not to be missed. Cheeses to be experienced that faintly hint of the grasses that the sheep and cows eat in the field. Freshly pressed olive oils that enliven a plate of greens. You may no longer be able to find that inexpensive wine on the shelf, but the French reds are some of the best you will taste. And don’t forget the champagne!

Paris is truly a melting pot not only of French gastronomic culture, blending all of the cuisines of the provinces of France in one city, but also of world cuisine, and the recipes of her many multicultural inhabitants.

Trois: You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t at least a little bit interested in art, architecture and artists. Paris has an excellent collection of all three. The city itself is a walking history museum and even if you didn’t step foot in a building, you couldn’t help but be inspired by what is out on the streets.

There are wonderful museums like the beautiful d’Orsay displaying floors of Impressionist work, the labyrinthine maze of Le Louvre where Winged Victory and Michelangelo’s Slaves live, the mind-boggling Pompidou with its displays of contemporary art and culture, the unicorn tapestries of the Cluny and the art of Picasso at the museum named after him.

The galleries of Rue du Seine in the 6th arrondissement and the Marais in the 3rd, hold everything from antique lawn sculptures to the work of world class artists.

The artists’ ateliers are open during Les Portes Ouvertes which happen at various times of the year, primarily in the neighborhoods of Belleville and Oberkampf but also in the Bastille.

The architecture of the first gothic cathedral in Europe, Saint-Denis, with its tombs of Kings and Royal Families, as well as the gargoyles of Notre-Dame, the mysteries of Saint-Sulpice and many of the other cathedrals in the city are preserved in their original forms. The term gothic tends to bring dark, somber, stormy night, visuals to mind, but gothic is really all about light and the opening up of space to let the light of God shine in or the rays of enlightenment bathe you into perfection – this particular style of architecture is all about contemplation.

The windows of L’Insitute du Monde Arabe also bring new light onto the subjects of Islam and Arab culture. The window shades are controlled by solar power and open and close according to how much direct sunlight they are getting, maintaining the light level inside to the same level throughout the day. The shades themselves create geometric patterns that form as the shades open and close.

Graffiti is an art form in Paris and good, artistic graffiti and wall murals, although not in the least encouraged in their making, are an accepted form of expression in some neighborhoods.

The flea markets, shops, and whole neighborhoods hold antiques and wonders to pilfer through to find that one special thing that will serve as a souvenir of your visit.

You will find no other city with a list of art and creative venues like Paris. The city is a living museum, with remnants from Lutetia Parisorium to La Revolution, to whatever happened in history yesterday discussed in your local cafe.

Quatre: From Paris there is a wonderful selection of daytrips outside the city – from Giverny to Auvers, Auvers to Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau to Versailles and back again. See the residence of Monet, the grave of Van Gogh, the country residences and gardens of Napolean and Louis XVI. And what about taking the train an hour out of town to Chartres, Beauvais, Amiens or Reims to see the cathedrals, a hike in the forest of Chantilly, or off to Epernay to taste a bit of champagne?

Cinque: Passing time in a cafe and people watching. What could be more Parisian than this? The neighborhood cafes are the living rooms and meeting places of the Parisians. Cafes are where they make new friends and keep old friendships alive. It’s where the neighborhood gossip gets stirred. And for a traveler, whether you are interested in watching the latest fashion walk by, sipping a Pernod, a bierre, a glass of vin rouge, savoring a cafe au lait, reading le quotidien, or just relaxing and resting your weary feet on la terasse, cafe life in Paris is life at its best.

Bon Voyage!

Can you think of another reason to visit Paris?