Prescription #1: Innocent Bystander 2011 Pinot Noir

I went hunting in the cellar last night for a bottle of Pinot Noir and discovered a box of Innocent Bystander 2011 Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley.

As you would expect from a wine that is seven years old, it is brick coloured, but still quite bright. On the nose there are smoky tones and red berries, and some delicate spices. It’s very smooth in the mouth, with a pleasing amount of acid and lingering tannins, and savoury, dark fruit flavours.

Dosage: 1-2 glasses with friend(s)
Take with food: baked figs stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and sprinkled with thyme.

wine bottle and glass



I’ve been trying to find the time and presence to write a blog that adequately captures my four days in Spain, but it seems to have resulted in not writing anything at all. From Paris I flew to Bilbao, the capital of the Basque country in north-western Spain. Our evening flight took us over the Pyrenees at sunset, their verdant glory bathed in golden light. Tiny villages are nestled in the valleys, with winding roads connect them, looking like sheep tracks from the air.
It was still light when I arrived in the city centre. In keeping with the beauty of the city, which I would discover over the next two days, the centre is not a square, but a circle, and planted with a carpet of vibrantly coloured flowers.
(To do justice to the beauty of Bilbao, I’m must put in lots of photos. If you want to see more detail, double click or right click the photo and open it full size. Keep scrolling, because my favourite photo is at the bottom.)
DSC03507That’s the original Hotel Carlton in the background, built between 1919 and 1926, and the first hotel in Spain to have ensuite bathrooms (read more of it’s history here). I splurged on two night’s accommodation here and it was absolutely lovely, from the receptionist who tolerated my abysmal Spanish, to the porter who carried my backpack and ukulele with the same style as if it were Louis Vuitton, the crisp white linen, elegant furniture in the room, the grand staircase (I couldn’t bring myself to take the lift), stained glass dome in the hall and chandeliers sprinkled about. DSC03550I could live here quite happily.

I wandered the city all day and into the evening, eating Pintxos – the Basque equivalent of tapas – drinking thick hot chocolate and taking in the beauty. I was struck by the architecture, with all it’s colour and decoration, and the way of life. It’s a stylish, yet relaxed city that I have fallen completely in love with.

Most of the buildings are just apartment and office buildings, like the first green one here. The next one is the Town Hall, with gryphons sitting on the light posts.


The colours are wonderful, especially with the vibrant green of the hills surrounding the  city, which sits in the valley by the river.


So many of the buildings have decorative crowns, mosaic façades, and figures on the corners. The photo below is taken from the Guggenheim Museum, looking over the river and west to the mountains. The Guggenheim exhibits were not entirely my cup of tea, but it was definitely interesting, and the fact that I’m still pondering what I saw tells me it was a worthwhile visit.DSC03562
DSC03551This one below is the front of the Bilbao opera house, built in 1901, and an incredible example of Belle Epoque architecture. The detail is quite extraordinary.



Old Time Barge

After the Ukulele Festival on Friday and Saturday, my weekend in Paris continued on a musical note on Sunday with the Old Time & Bluegrass Festival. I’d chosen my Airbnb for its proximity to the festivals but I didn’t realise I’d be able to spot the venue from my bedroom window. Looking out to the canal and a little bit left (see my previous post for a photo) the red and yellow stripes of the Anako marked the spot. It’s an old barge that is now a music venue with a bar and concert space inside and a deck outside. I’m not sure if it still moves, but it certainly floats.


I spent the afternoon on the deck jamming with an eclectic mix of Old Time and Bluegrass players from many corners of the globe who find themselves in Paris. DSC03491

I bumped into Heather Stewart from Melbourne (now based in Paris), watched a young band from North Carolina flat foot dance by the canal with a beer, had too many coffees, learnt about the migration of folk music to America, and descended into the barge for the evening concert. There is something fabulous about being at water level but inside. Even in May the sun is already setting quite late so the portholes gave a view of the canal and people wandering on Sunday evening.


I caught up with a few friends on Monday and wandered in the sunshine before heading off to the airport to catch a plane down to Bilbao in the north west of Spain. This weekend is definitely my favourite time to be in Paris (with my ukulele) and I may just have to make it an annual trip.

Un weekend à Paris

Having a holiday in the middle of a holiday seems extraordinarily decadent, but one does what one must. The kids’ dad came over to visit, so I got a week off parenting – yippee! I skipped of to Paris with my ukulele and a little backpack last Friday night for the Paris Ukulele Festival followed by the Old Time & Bluegrass Festival. I was in Paris last year for the same weekend and it was great to be there again and have friends this time. I missed the open-mic night on the Thursday, but made it to the buzzing bar, Aux Petits Joueurs, in the north east corner of the city on Friday night. I met up with a lovely friend, Pascal, who I met at the same time and place last year, and we shared a plate of charcuterie – a variety of hams, saucisson (a bit like salami), pâtés and rillettes – with some beers. When the waiter came to collect the plate at the end, I loaded a piece of bread with the remaining rillettes and cornichons, to which the waiter responded by saying it would a terrible waste to leave the butter and slapped a great chunk of it on the top of my already dangerously loaded slice of baguette.

One of the things I love about the ukulele world is the enthusiasm and goodwill, and Pascal embodies just that. Accountant by trade and ukulele lover by choice, he recounted his musical adventures since we’d last met with delighted animation – of the group that he sometimes plays with in his home town in the mountains in central France, the new uke the local luthier is making for him, and the tricky parts about strumming. It makes me smile just thinking about what a fun evening it was, with various players from the festival gracing the stage for an informal night before the serious session began the next day. I ended the night catching with some other people I’d met in 2016, and made it back to my lodgings at 2am.

I’d booked a super-cheap Airbnb in the area, and while the bed lacked a certain amount of padding – you know that feeling when you wonder what’s sticking into your shoulder in the middle of the night and realise it’s the spring – the view over the Bassin de la Villette made up for it. A little later in the day, there were five or six pétanque games in action.


Saturday I was on a mission to find the big opshop around the corner. France doesn’t have a lot of opshops, but when they do, it’s a big warehouse. I sniffed around the bookshelves (I was very restrained and didn’t buy anything, fearful of my EasyJet baggage restrictions on Monday), admired the grand old furniture at ridiculously low prices and marvelled that the Ikea items were more expensive, and then flipped through the racks of clothes. No pretty dresses in my size and style, but I didn’t find a great little Parisien boutique designer shirt by Anne Fontaine. I just googled the label and am now both horrified and delighted to find that my 8€ purchase retails at several hundred new!

Then I wandered. Without the small people with me, I was free to stroll the streets. This is definitely my favourite thing to do in Paris, just watching the world go about its business. I eventually ended up at the uke workshop with Ukulele Uff, master of the speedy strum. This was followed by jamming on the terrace with a couple of ladies – quel joie to sing in spontaneous three part harmonies on a sunny afternoon. The main concert in the evening followed by drinks at the local bar and I ended up on the street playing tunes until 3am. Loads of fun and a pleasant stroll home through the sleepy streets of Paris.

Now, to learn all of the strums, chords and tunes I added to my list…

Victory Day – May 8

The sound of a marching band and activity in the square outside my house raised me from my slothful reading in bed on Monday morning. I was enjoying the public holiday and not having to get the kids off to school, but had done nothing more than briefly wonder why it was a day off. A little research was in order. Although much of France was celebrating the defeat of the fascists in the presidential election the day before, the 8th of May marks the end of the Second World War in Europe. (The war didn’t finish in the Asia-Pacific region until the 2nd September 1945). At 10am the local marching band assembled – complete with large, white, marching tuba – and paraded up to the memorial outside the post office. They began the ceremony with an enthusiastic version of La Marseillaise, followed by a few speeches, a bit of flag raising and lowering, and a few tunes.



Despite the French architecture and tricolor flag, I was struck by just how similar it all was to war memorial services in little Australian towns, and probably towns all over thewestern world – the community band, an audience of mostly over 70s, a few younger re-enacters and a couple of random onlookers.

Had I not been in my pyjamas I might have gone outside to observe a little closer, but as it was, the view from the bathroom window on the first floor was quite good.

We’re nowhere near Flanders, but the poppies are out in between the vines. As Lucie remarked, the purple and blue flowers enhance the vibrant red of the poppies.


Bread & Poker

The last day before starting French school (after 4 weeks holidays) saw my small hedonists playing poker in the sunshine with stinky cheese on baguette. Now if that pigeon that keeps cooing out of time would just get a metronome, Gabriel would be completely relaxed.

The last week has been rather beastly with gastro and cold, rainy weather, but things are looking up as the sunshine returns and school starts.

And now for this week’s CHEESE REPORT:

Saint Felicien – so creamy and smooth it almost needs to be eaten with a spoon. Hard to stop before slowly devouring the whole thing.

Munster – still Lucie’s favourite, with a slightly ammonia edge hovering around its orange rind and gooey centre. Not for the faint hearted. Particularly delicious on sunny afternoons while playing cards.

Brie de Meaux – just how Brie should be. Served at room temperature for maximum ooze and flavour.

Roquefort – a green mould sheep’s cheese whose bark is worse than its bite. In fact it’s almost sweet, and one of the roundest flavoured mouldy cheeses out there. The last of the piece in my fridge is destined to end in a buttery sauce for pasta (or maybe just spread on baguette).

Au marché

I have been waiting patiently for market day to arrive. This morning when I opened my bedroom shutters, the square was buzzing with people doing their weekly shop. I didn’t make it out the door until after 11 by which time their were far too many tourists for my liking. I was horrified to hear Australian English from the people next to me as I bought some mackerel for dinner. Turned out my distraction meant I didn’t realise they were not cleaned, so I learnt how to gut a fish at dinner time. They were quite tasty in the end. I was also somewhat horrified by the pale, flabby pile of fish livers on display. What do you even do with fish livers? And couldn’t quite face the grizzly faces of the merlin.


I came home from the first excursion with a basket full of bright red tomatoes, crusty bread, and some dark buckwheat bread, goat’s cheese, saucisson, paté de campagne and a bunch of enormous asparagus. DSC03307

The kids were keen for a nibble!

I had to wait for a good 10 minutes at the charcuterie van as the lady in front me ordered a bit of this and bit of that and three slices of the other, oh, and I’ll just get a couple of those lamb roasts that need smashing and maybe some …  I do understand, though, as everything looked quite delicious.


I had to go back for a second trip and red potatoes, veggies, and a punnet of lettuce that I’ve put in a pot in the courtyard. Can’t wait for them to be big enough to eat!

I’ve been eating and drinking with my lovely friends Helen and Guillaume who live around the corner. The weather has been gloriously sunny, so we’ve had lots of lunches in the garden. I am wondering if I’ll get a reputation for being the crazy lady who walks around town with a saucepan full of food. It’s easy to cook and my place and take it around to theirs for dinner, but have been attracting a few curious glances on the walk. They’ve stocked me up on wine and delicious olive oil from Ostal Cazes, one of the Lynch-Bages wineries.


Stone walls and chandliers

We’ve made it to Pauillac, our home for the next three months. It’s in the middle of the wine region, and home to some of Bordeaux’s most prestigious labels – Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Lynch-Bages, Château Latour – just to name a few. Sadly they’re a little bit out of my budget to drink on Wednesday nights (or ever, really). I’ve been coming here for my PhD research for the last seven years, so it feels a bit like my second home. It’s just a little town – a few thousand people – on the Gironde River, which stretches several kilometres wide at this point. The houses are mostly stone, including our three storey delight. Anyone popping in for a cup of tea in the jardin?

Grubby old Paris

After five days in Paris, we’re off on a train heading south. It’s Easter and the fast train tickets were exorbitant, so we’re on the normal train nosing out through the suburbs of Paris, past little villages and regional towns. Having caught the fast train from Paris to Bordeaux quite a few times, it’s nice to be on a different line and travelling at a speed where everything isn’t whizzing past in a blur. Strange that when you get outside Paris, the countryside is remarkable similar all the way south until you hit the wine country just outside Bordeaux.

We’re all quite happy to sit on the train today as we’ve walked our little legs off in Paris this week. Gabe has been horrified by the filth – bird poo, dog poo, chewing gum, urine – and the noise – traffic, beeping, trains, street sweepers, people and out of tune police cars (his words) – and is very happy to leave Paris for the country. Lucie’s tired face lit up when she saw the Eiffel Tower peeping over a building. Being Easter, there were a gazillion people so we didn’t go up it, but wandered around the area and saw it from different angles. As the photo below shows, sometimes we were very confused about where we were!


We spent an interesting few hours at the Musée des Art et Métiers looking at all kinds of old telegraphic, photographic and recording machines. I dragged the kids through the crowds in the Galeries Lafayette (one of the original department stores with a coloured glass domed roof) up to the terrace for a view of the roof tops, and again to the top of the Institut du Monde Arabe. I was going to have coffee, but at 6 euro for an espresso, decided to descend to ground level where it’s only 1.50. We stopped at Les Arènes de Lutèce – a roman amphitheatre discovered in the late 19th century, where instead of throwing Christians to the lions, they now play pétanque.


Around the corner we found the Paris Mosque, standing serenely in its aquamarine and white simplicity. We got a sneak peek at the courtyard garden, but it was closed to visitors, so no more than that.


Paris is a very different place with children. I’ve only been once with kids – when Gabe was 15 months old – and every time since has a been a little escape from real life and responsibilities. Unlike all those other visits this one has been very subdued – no cocktails, no wine, no fancy dinners, no trying on pretty dresses, or late nights skipping around the city of lights. It seems entirely wrong to report I’ve been in France for 6 days and not had a glass of wine. A glass of Bordeaux this evening is in order!


Little surprises

DSC03226If there’s one thing that characterises Paris for me, it’s little surprises hiding around corners.
Wandering down a street, suddenly Sacre Cœur popped into view for a few moments, sitting high above the city and beautifully framed by the buildings below.

Or visiting a new museum – today it was the Musée des Arts et Métiers (the Design Museum) – where we discovered that the first telegraphic machines used piano keyboards to type the letters in. Each key corresponded to a letter of the alphabet and the exquisitely crafted machine could send messages.