Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas! To celebrate here are some of my favorite holiday pictures from the season

The library at Leeds Castle

A nutcracker in Leuven

French chocolates

Build your own nativity

Angels & snowmen 

The houses of Strasbourg

A stall dedicated to cookie cutters in Aachen

The markets of Aachen

Aachen at night

Treats, treats and more treats

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Comes To Mons

It may not be the biggest or fanciest Christmas market around but because it is right in our backyard ----a.k.a. just a couple of blocks from our house--- in many respects it is the best one. Yes, even little old Mons has their own market, complete with lit tree, a skating rink and miniature toboggan run for the kids and chalets attesting to Belgian's love of beer and aperitifs.There is even a smattering of food and craft vendors.

Mons Christmas Market

Hotel de Ville

and from another perspective

The centerpiece of it all

Monday, December 22, 2014

Strasbourg: The Oldest Christmas Market In Europe

Away from the hustle and bustle of the holiday
festivities the city is still beautiful
My favorite part of the past few weeks has been making the rounds of the European Christmas markets. Whether large or small, local or international, these markets are a European tradition and are sure to instill the spirit of the holidays in everyone who visits them. And my favorite adventure to date took me to Strasbourg, France and the oldest Christmas market in Europe.

Located on the Ill River along the German border in eastern France, Strasbourg's location is reflected in everything from its architecture to its food. It is truly a diverse city that feels a lot like Germany while being located in France. The historic city center is essentially an island surrounded by the flowing canal like river making me think of Brugge. In 1988 the entire city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site marking the first time an entire city center received such an honor. Strasbourg is capital of the Alsace region, the official seat of the European Union Parliament and home to the Grand Mosque, the largest place of Islamic worship in France. There is also a grand cathedral, broad squares and winding cobblestone streets and alleys where you can get pleasantly lost for hours at a time. And if shopping is your thing you are in luck because here you can find everything from upscale designer boutiques selling "Paris" fashions to gourmet shops filled with local wines, foie gras, cheeses and chocolates. (You will never go hungry here).

Welcome to the markets
And then there is the Christmas Market. Or more correctly the markets because there are eleven of them spread across the historic city center. Strasbourg bills itself as the "Capital of Christmas"for good reason. The markets date back to 1570 when the first Christmas market in Europe took place here. In 1605 the tradition of decorating fir trees was introduced to the advent festivities. The tradition continues with a giant tree being erected in Place Kleber each winter. The city center also boasts several hundred kilometers of Christmas lights and decorations which turns the entire city into a Christmas wonderland.

Today,with over 300 individual stalls spread out over eleven markets, the Christmas market of Strasbourg is collectively one of the largest in Europe. The stalls are divided into themed markets which include a Village of Sharing (a market filled with NGO vendors such as UNICEF) and a Children's Village where the smallest visitors are treated like royalty. There are markets dedicated to selling the speciality items of Alsace (lots of hand crafted wooden items, foie gras and wine sold here). And each year a different country is invited to set up a market dedicated to highlighting their country's products. This year's guest country was Belgium where chocolates and pomme frites were on display. And the food. Whether it be spicy gluwein (of both the red and white varieties), baguettes slathered with cheeses and meat or cookies and baked goodies of every shape, size and flavor are there for the eating and enjoying.

Roasting chestnuts

Sweet treats of the chocolate variety

Build your own nativity 

Traditional Alsace houses

So if you want to get into the holiday spirit, are looking for something special for yourself or someone else or simply want to experience a traditional European Christmas, visit the Christmas markets of Strasbourg. I went this year and plan on returning again.

If you go:

Place Broglie
67000 Strasbourg, France
+33 (0)3 88 52 28 28
From 28 November to 31 December 2014 (check dates for future years)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cook vs Turkey.....

Mr. Butterball before

......and the cook won? Yes.

There are many ways to cook a turkey. Do you start with a fresh or frozen bird? Some people swear by submerging them in vats of hot oil and frying them while other people skewer them before placing them on the grill. Still others opt for the oven roasted method but that begs the question of to brine or not brine. Do you season and baste the bird by squeezing herbs and oils between the skin and meat or cook it au natural. And what about the dressing; is it cooked inside of the bird or out? Everyone has their own idea of what is correct. A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the idea of cooking the bird in its frozen state. She swore that it  came out juicier this way and saved you the hassle of trying to figure out how to safely defrost it first. I was intrigued but skeptical and each time I went to cook a turkey I contemplated this method then (turkied out) and fell back on the method that I was most comfortable with--roasting an unbrined yet heavily seasoned bird in the oven with its cavity filled with sliced apples and citrus. After all, what would happen if it didn't cook properly and I had a table full of guests expecting turkey.

But then I found myself in Belgium with a single small refrigerator. My only options for a turkey were the frozen ones from the grocery store and with my small refrigerator I simply didn't have a place where I could safely thaw the bird. So I took the plunge, crossed my fingers and stuck my fully frozen bird in the oven six hours before my guests were set to arrive. And I waited (while eliciting reassuring emails from my friend). And I waited because my bird was slightly larger than the bird described in the "recipe" I was following.

But sure enough, shortly before my full fledged panic began to kick in the bird started to thaw and turn brown. By the time I had to wrestle the still partially frozen neck and organs out of the cavity it was actually beginning to smell like a turkey. The afore mentioned removal process, however, was not pretty. Picture two people, one set of oven mitts, tongs and an oven hot roasting pan perched over a small sink. It was hot, messy and slightly work that had me longing to be able to put the turkey in the oven and forget about it. But a cook has to do what a cook has to do, right? And because I am a glutton for punishment, I took this opportunity to fill the now empty cavity with homemade dressing.. Again this wasn't an easy task since I was dealing with a bird that was simultaneously frozen and burning to the touch. Ouch.

A few hours later, however, when I removed the fully cooked turkey from the oven I thought I had success. Due to the afore mentioned wrestling match the fully cooked bird wasn't as pretty as I had hoped but we carved it before it went on the table so no one was the wiser. The result? The meat was cooked, the bird was juicy and our guests raved about its taste. Given my current circumstances I'd use this cooking method again. But give me a larger kitchen with a larger refrigerator, I'd go back to my usual method.

In the end, however, I got my belated Thanksgiving dinner so now it is time to tackle Christmas. There will not be turkey on the menu this time around.

Mr. Butterball, the cooked version

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Burning The Midnight Oil

Don't get me wrong; I love the holiday season. But while it can be an incredibly festive and joyous time of year, in order to make all of that happen requires a lot of work. Houses don't get magically decorated and gifts don't buy, wrap (and in our case) ship themselves. Those lovely boxes of cookies that get delivered to the office? Yes, they take time to bake and before I can even turn on the oven I need to tackle the chore of shopping for ingredients. You get the idea.....

Growing up one of my most prevalent holiday memories was that of my own mother coming home from work then staying up into the wee hours of the morning toiling away with holiday preparations. The copious amount of cookies, wrapped gifts and the year all three of us kids received hand knit stockings are images that are burned into my memory. And somewhere buried amongst those memories are those of my mom not being completely happy about all that was required. But each year, thanks entirely to her efforts, it all came together and as an adult I still cherish those Christmas memories. As I was in the midst of my own baking-shopping-wrapping frenzy recently I stopped and realized that in this respect I have now become my mother. (Gasp).

As a family we aren't big gift givers. Glenn and I no longer exchange gifts opting to take a family trip instead. "Santa" visits Sidney leaving a few carefully selected gifts but that is it. As far as extended family goes, some years we give gifts and other years we don't. Living in Albania with limited outgoing mail service we fell out of the habit of sending packages home. This year, with ready access to the U.S. postal system and the wonderful Christmas markets of western Europe, we made the decision that we would send small Christmas packages home. But with Christmas a little over a week away we have yet to purchase any of those gifts. We've been looking at all of the Christmas markets but have yet to find anything that strikes our fancy. After all, we like to give gifts that have special meaning rather than giving for the sake of giving. What does one give to people who are world travelers and have everything they could need? My fallback items of locally made treats really don't fare well when sent through the mail. And now as I make regular pilgrimages to the post office to see if Sidney's big gift has arrived I see long queues of people waiting to send off their own carefully wrapped packages. To date I've only acquired the boxes and customs forms needed to mail of those afore mentioned, hoped for gifts. And Christmas cards accompanying a newsy family letter? Those went by the wayside years ago when keeping track of the addresses of our ever moving friends became too much work. Besides, between Facebook and this blog I figure people are getting their fill of what we are up to.

So closer to home I'm focusing on the here and now. We put up our tree and decorated the house the weekend after Thanksgiving. It looks lovely if not a bit sparse since our rooms with their soaring ceilings are just so much more cavernous than we are used to. I figure this year we will pick up additional items at the Christmas markets and be all set for a fully decorated abode next year. Having just hosted our belated Thanksgiving dinner for friends this past weekend I'm now giving thought to our own Christmas dinner but as we will be taking off for our next adventure on Boxing Day am unsure what I should make. After trudging to several grocery stores, the local market and making a foray into the Belgian version of a Michael's craft store (my worst nightmare in any country or language) for boxes, I'm ready to put together cookie boxes for Glenn's co-workers. And despite my single, European sized oven and minuscule kitchen with its single sliver of counter space, I was on a baking streak yesterday whipping out batch after batch of cookies. That was, until I ran out of both butter and sugar and it being a Monday and the day of the national strikes in Belgium, and I was unable to get to a store to replenish my supply. But I'll get there today (or tomorrow) and continue baking tonight (or tomorrow) and those coveted boxes of goodies will be delivered this week before the office shuts down for the remainder of the year. Then I can tackle the gift buying and wrapping.......

So I'm warning family back in the states not to hold their breath waiting for a package from us. It may or may not arrive and if it does it will be a New Years gift rather than a Christmas one. The cookies will get done and Sidney's presents will be wrapped and delivered by Santa because...well....they have to. Somehow it really does come together every year and this one won't be any different. And for a brief moment on Christmas Day I will sit back, relax, eat a cookie or two and remind myself that I really do love this time of year. Honestly, I do. Because after all, what would Christmas be without the flurry of activity, the last minute trips to the store and the late night struggles with tape that sticks to everything but what it should. I really wouldn't have it any other way. Honestly.