Saturday, 20 February 2010


I am on a plane from Munich to Stockholm as I write this. It is about 8pm local time and darkness has fallen. As I waited for the seatbelt sign to be switched off so I could write about my week in Toulouse I looked out the window. As we climbed through the rain I watched the white lights at the end of the wing flash twice like a heartbeat every second. In the brief moment of illumination I saw a wall of rain drops that contained some water diamonds caught in the light. They were shining and moving in the strobe light effect. It was quite beautiful.

I have been in Toulouse with work and have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to enjoy some good French food across the week. Before I go any further I should point out two important things: firstly I love Cassoulet. Secondly Cassoulet comes from Toulouse. So long before I set out for this trip I have been on a mission to make sure I ate Cassoulet in Toulouse.

On Monday evening we ate in a Restaurant beside the hotel, our French host had arranged for it to be opened especially for us. There was only the choice of steak or fish. I opted for the former as did many of my colleagues. I listened, slightly depressed as my colleagues all asked for their steak to be well done. I know in Finnish there is no word for a ‘rare’ steak but I was in France now I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to order my steak Bleau. It was excellently cooked and raised the eyebrows of all my colleagues for my recklessness and of my French host who listening to us order had clearly decided we were gastronomic philistines!

On Tuesday evening we went for dinner in the local shopping centre beside our meeting venue. It was as drab and as soulless as all shopping centers tend to be. However the restaurant seemed to be trying to be better than its surroundings. The menu was standard bistro fare with a few extras thrown in. Unfortunately there was no Cassoulet. So I opted for the tripe. I had had some good tripe in Barcelona which had been served with chickpeas in a great tomato sauce so I had high hopes. When it arrived at the table I realized that this time I was literally being served a bowl of tripe. However it was tasty. I get the chance to eat tripe so infrequently it had to be better than ordering steak again. I also raised the eyebrows of my colleagues for what was now clearly my recklessness and from our French host who was beginning to think I might be unusual for a foreigner.

On Wednesday night we were taking for a cheese tasting at one of the oldest cheese shops in Toulouse. We were in a private dining room in the cellar behind the shop which stands in the Place Victor Hugo. The main wall in the cellar was actually the old city wall which had stood guarding Toulouse from the Middle Ages until the late 19th Century. The loo was also special as the tap for washing your hands was operated by a foot pedal.

The cheese tasting itself was amazing. 2 and a half hours of unpasturised artisan cheeses served with complimentary wines! I have never eaten so much cheese in one sitting! I went to bed very full. Our guide for the evening was the cheese shop owners son and he spoke with such passion that I joked at one point that if you substituted the word “Cheese” for “Our Lord Jesus Christ” you would think yourself in Church. I did learn that it is always good to cut off the crust on cheese. He even served us two British cheeses, Stilton and Cheddar. The highlight however was the Mont Cheese. He only sells Mont that is at least two and a half years old.

Thursday morning saw me unable to eat breakfast I was still so full and had to make do with a cup of coffee and a glass of grapefruit juice. Our meeting wound up on Thursday afternoon and some of my colleagues headed out for the airport. Due to flights I was staying over with about half the group. We acted on a recommendation from the night before and we managed to reserve a table at Emilie in the Place St George. I had been told that this was the Cassoulet restaurant in Toulouse and I wasn’t going home without eating at least one!

When we arrived at the restaurant I was pleased to see it was in the Michelin Guide. The place itself was small but nice, the staff were welcoming but this was clearly a place with a gourmet pedigree. We were seven people and six Cassoulets were ordered for a main course. I had oysters as a starter and I am pleased to say they moved when I added lemon juice and they tasted of the sea.

Finally my Cassoulet arrived. A hearty bowl with beans that were caramelized on top with a crispy piece of confit du canard in the middle was placed in front of me. I broke through the top and began to spoon it onto my plate. Under the top were pieces of pork and Toulouse sausages. The beans were creamy and the taste was amazing. The sauce gave it a richness without swamping the ingredients. I think I also spotted a few sly pieces of tripe in amongst the melee but there was no way you would know it was in there.

We had ordered a reasonable local wine to accompany the meal, however 2 of my colleagues labeled themselves as philistines in the eyes of the waiter and I by ordering Kronenburg beer to go with their Cassoulet!

Afterwards I could not contemplate a dessert but contained myself to a glass of malt whisky which turned out to be an extremely generous measure which was just as well when I got the bill!

The little I saw of Toulouse has planted the idea in my head that maybe I should bring the family for a holiday on the Canal du Midi, although with all the adventures we already have planned I am not sure when this trip would happen. However it is always good to have dreams. And an excel spreadsheet to keep them on.

Now I am flying home and I am on flight two of three. I will be home in the early hours of tomorrow morning. I am looking forward to seeing my family but I know I will be asked by the boss what I am cooking for dinner on Saturday night. Will I disappoint her if I don’t cook Cassoulet?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

This is your destiny calling

I have to admit how much I love Calvin & Hobbes. I found this one on the internet and it sums up perfectly what is happening to my life now with the little one. I am becoming Calvin's dad. I am not entirely sure this is a good thing.

It dawned on me that this process was happening when I was cycling to work in the snow and thewind on a horrible morning and being very happy with myself because it was such a healthy thing to be doing. At that moment I was hit by the thunderbolt of Calvin's dadness. I had to stop and laugh out loud, which on the street in Finland on a February morning is to risk a visit to the local psychiatrist.
The fact that I was dressed exactly like Calvin's dad in the cartoon above did not help.

Not content with this terrifying development I went cross
country skiing yesterday. I though I was doing a gentle 7km. 15km later I was a tired but happy Calvin's dad. I have since heard of a 40km trail that goes over the sea ice in and around Turku Harbour. Sounds good, I should reach my optimal heart rate in no time and it is so good to be out on these cold days.

*Calvin & Hobbes is the work and property of the wonderful Bill Watterson. All images here belong to him. Except the ski track! Thanks to James for the song title.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Adventures in the Finnish Monkey House

Our weekend in Tahko turned out to be a little more adventurous than first planned. It all started about 25 minutes after the bus should have left Tampere and we had seen no sign of it that we phoned the Tahko central booking office to be told our trip had been cancelled and unfortunately they had forgotten to tell us!

My brother & I gamely hired a car and drove 4 hours from Tampere to Kuopio in the worst winter in 50 years. The roads were not that great and for large parts of the journey there simply isn't much there. All in all most of the route is not a good play to come a cropper in winter driving conditions. However we made it safely to Kuopio by about 11pm. On Saturday we drove on up to Tahko and had a fabulous day's skiing. The weather was cold, around about -25C with the wind chill and we were fully kitted out in just about anything possible to wear that covered our face from the elements. It is not often I ski in (and I list in order): balaclava, powder mask, hat, helmet & goggles. The new skis were brilliant and I loved tearing down the slopes on them. In Finland this means 5 minutes on the lift going up and 30 seconds coming down which can be a too quick!

On Sunday we decided to head for Himos ski resort which is between Jyväsklyä and Tampere. This was an inspired move as the resort itself was excellent and we managed to be home at a reasonable time. Even better the slopes in Himos were steeper than in Tahko so I had some great fun turning the (wonderful) new skis on the steep.

All this being outdoors has made me realise that I am letting the best winter in 50 years pass me by and I need to get out and do some cross country skiing. I have a day off on Friday. Can I tear myself away from quality time with my 5 month old baby daughter to go and wonder around some frozen landscape on a pair of thin skis?