Podcast interview with Marc Meneau, executive chef, L Esperance Marc Meneau

Audio translation by Christine Lissac

Chef Marc Meneau
Chef Marc Meneau at Domaine de L’Espérance de Marc Meneau, his hotel and restaurant in Burgundy, France

Listen to a podcast audio interview, in French (see written English translation below), with Marc Meneau, executive chef, L’Espérance Marc Meneau. Earlier this year he discussed his restaurant, one of the best known gourmet French restaurants in Burgundy, and other culinary issues with Elena del Valle, host of the Simon & Baker Travel Review Podcast program, while she was at Domaine de L’Espérance de Marc Meneau in Burgundy, France.

To listen to the interview, click on the play button below


Interview translation:

EDV: So how do you cook?

MM: With love… I begin by reflecting a little bit on the manner in which I was fed in my childhood: with simple products. And I have always kept this traceability of a simple product, never sophisticated with six or seven different flavors in the same plate. I do not know how to do that.

I began to cook later in life after marrying a beautiful blonde whose parents were in the restaurant business and whose mother was a chef and so my wife coaxed me along that line. Eventually we began to consult cookbooks together. I was not a cook back then; we selected some recipes, some words, we did comprehensive research and it was with a document we wrote that we taught ourselves how to cook. And I am still learning, I have been for the past 45 years, I am a perpetual chef apprentice, therefore I observe with great attention all that happens around the world, draw my own conclusions, then continue on my own merry way.

EDV: What are you looking for when you cook? Why do you cook?

MM: Two things need respect. You need to respect the product: if you have carrots, once cooked they must smell like carrots, not smell like cumin or fennel; they must smell like carrots. The second thing is that cooking provides to the one who creates it, the opportunity to share what has been prepared, to present to someone the opportunity, the pleasure of eating well.

I believe these two things are of equal importance. Sometimes the product is more important, sometimes giving to others the pleasure to eat is more important. I have to admit that this inspires me to constantly come up with new recipes, invent new dishes. It is like walking along a little country road leading to Mount Olympus that I will never reach because my arms are too short.

EDV: How do you see this path of yours? The past and the future, as a French chef, what do you see?

MM: My motto is to only think about only 15 minutes into the past and to see the future over a period of a hundred years.

EDV: And what do you think about French Cuisine in the world?

MM: There was a time when French Cuisine was attacked at its very core about 10 years ago, though the one who invented a new form of French cuisine, Adria in Spain, was swallowed up and placed in the forefront in the U.S.A. where the American media thought they had found the world’s genius, without any second thoughts to the possible health consequences that this would have. Adria was a real genius but the public was too interested in “show” cuisines and the media overdid the idea to the point that it became only a Cuisine for Chefs, for those who have fun discovering new flavors, new textures, new technology.

It is not like cooking from memory; it is not like celebrating Grandma’s birthday or your child’s first communion. It is not family cooking; it is a “show” cuisine that was fabulously interesting for us chefs.

Certain French media took pleasure in thrashing out French Cuisine but it was clearly those that were less talented. French cuisine can exist without any problem next to Spanish cuisine, Italian cuisine, Vietnamese cuisine and Chinese cuisine. It is quite possible for all of us to live side by side as our cultures are very complementary to one another.

Each time a recipe exists, there is a story behind it, linked to the culture of each people, each civilization.

EDV: And when you think about what you are doing here in your restaurant, what do you see? Who is the person that is going to be satisfied having a meal here?

MM: This client must be a little like me. He must be someone who knows what a grain of salt and a grain of pepper are and he must also have a grain of imagination; this is how we are going to meet: the client at the table and me at the stove, giving someone an emotion that will become a memory in his life and remind him of his childhood. He could say “yes I have tasted carrots prepared this way with a similar taste twenty years ago.” Even if it is not exactly the same the important part is the memory retained at the time. This is how cuisine becomes a revealing mechanism of life’s emotions.

EDV: Does that person need to be French?

For millennia now cooking has become an international thing, it does not have a country, a color, it is only the expression of how people live on a particular territory. Life is lived differently whether you live in Africa, Asia Minor or Northern Europe. Therefore each country will have its own traditions.
Here is a simple example: Meat can be grilled using old vine logs or pine wood from the moor, birch wood from the northern country and all these will produce a different flavor. There is going to be identification by methodology that will create a different taste.

EDV: So how do you know how to choose this or that place?

MM: Well that is a choice to be made.

EDV: So we ask advice from the chef. What is the style that you produce in your kitchen?

MM: In order to give advice one has to know the people asking for it. The first time you meet them it is impossible to know them. Therefore one must have clients that become patrons so that after their third visit, their host knows that they like eating ris de veau or prefer a turbot fish to a lobster. All that forms part of the professional experience of those working in the restaurant’s dining room. This is no longer the work of the chef. The chef cooks the type of cuisine that he likes and if some people like his type of cuisine, it is all the better. If some people do not like his cuisine, well then either he commits suicide as Vatel did or he changes his range.

EDV: Would you say that this is Classical French Cuisine?

MM: It is the cuisine of Marc Meneau

EDV: Is it not possible to describe it?

MM: No. Not possible.

It is neither classic nor modern; it is the way people like to eat these days while experiencing an emotion. Whether they only want to eat one dish, prefer to eat quickly; there are appropriate dishes for them to choose, and if they would like to have a feast there are also dishes appropriate for that, if they wish to spend an enjoyable evening, between friends or as a couple, there are dishes suitable for that too. No rules.

EDV: The products – Because we begin with the products – what can you tell me about them?

MM: Without product there is no cooking, one does not need to be a good cook if one has rubbish products. One must only use the best products: good products draw out the chef’s intelligence because once the chef has the notion of the effort required to produce these good products and the respect they deserve he will not cheat with them.

EDV: How do you go about getting good products?

MM: We have a lot of experience in this profession and we personally travel across France ten times a year looking for products.

EDV: And what is available here?

MM: Here we have a countryside blessed by the gods as far as architecture, literature, music, history is concerned yet we have rather humble products with the exception of meat, the Charolais (bovine) and of the river fish, which people do not eat anymore, they don’t like it; these days, people do not eat river fish anymore for a single reason: fish bones, sea fish have less bones.

So, as far as foie gras is concerned, we don’t have any here, we only have ham, we have mushrooms. We are limited in what we have but on the other hand we have fresh herbs every day and condiments of good quality. So we find ham in Spain, foie gras either in Landes or in Alsace. We find poultry in Bresse.

EDV: And this morning you took me to visit… the vegetable garden. So what can you tell me about the vegetable garden?

MM: The vegetable garden is a virtual calendar developing in my head; and when I see the first radishes coming through, the leeks, the first lettuces, the zucchini, the eggplant, the tomatoes. Walking through the vegetable garden every day gives me ideas and inspires me to cook. It is a trigger for ideas and inspirations and at the same time it positions me within the right season, so I almost become an honest man.

EDV: And so you have to work hard to get the products from your place? I believe you have two employees in the garden?

MM: Yes, two employees take care of the garden to allow us to have a beautiful garden with flowers, agreeable and simple without sophistication, and a vegetable garden which will bring back to the minds of those strolling by, memories of their grandmothers, their parents, prompt that get them to recall visits to some beautiful castles. Most importantly, they will begin to think to themselves: “rather than having caviar for lunch I am going to have some of these good old radishes with fresh farm butter,” radishes that would never have seen the inside of a fridge, that would not have been transported by truck and that would have been picked that same morning. That is true luxury.

EDV: Do people appreciate it? Do they realize that when they come and sit at your table?

MM: Yes, we are in a period where people are in the process of rediscovering vegetable gardens and leisure gardens and I encourage everyone who has a little balcony or window to plant a few things there. I think it is awesome … because we know we have a rotation over about 20, 40 days in a year, one can have fun by planting a few lettuces, a few carrots, a few radishes, and the day that you are going to eat your own vegetables, it is going to trigger an explosion of joy which will get you to think “I know why I am human, I know why I live.” My dog is unaware of this.

EDV: This is only available to humans…

MM: To mankind… the privilege of humanity is to have the sense of taste, not intelligence, taste. I don’t think other animals have a sense of taste. We do, we have a sense of taste.

EDV: What is the biggest challenge for you, and for a chef today?

MM: It is to stand firm against all the commercial offers of bad products. Recently a great French label of nutritional products, offered with a lot of colorful pages, some truffles all chopped up with gold leafs mixed in, saying that it would make a dish of risotto or rice “chic” when adding this very expensive product that is actually useless. Either we have truffles or we have gold. Gold is for festivities but it is not nutritious. So one has to resist the pressure of the clients who want to pay less and less for their food because they have so many other financial commitments that did not exist twenty or thirty years ago, but they are all so trendy, to the point that these days the cost of food for consumption is lower. So it is up to us chefs to find a solution to reduce the cost but not at the expense of quality, rather by stimulating our creativity and knowledge and harmonizing them in a recipe that could be very simple as long as it is made with good old products. Flashy components are no longer necessary as they used to be in the eighties and nineties, where one had to eat lobster, caviar, foie gras, etc. That era is over. If we do caviar now it will be an eggplant caviar, no longer the caviar from the sturgeon.

EDV: Why?

MM: Because it is no longer in fashion! The price is not justifiable. Twenty or thirty years ago, the cuisine was … how could I say…a social entertainment, today it is an introspective entertainment: how am I going to eat well, how am I going to avoid processed food that we don’t really know much about like how it is produced. How am I going to manage that? How much time can I invest in my cooking in order to avoid the bland ready-made meals with their standardized taste? There are colorants, artificial sugars in each processed product. People are beginning to discover that when a product is natural it is a little less like Coca Cola.

Because when we have a glass of Coca Cola we need a second one. Where as if we drink an ice tea for instance, it is not necessary to have a second one. This is the difference and therefore the cuisine is going to become like that, an element of cultural sobriety.

EDV: Do you think it’s going to be like that in the near future in five or ten years?

MM: Yes I think so. There will always be …. and this is specific to France…upstream from the chef, people that are producing exceptional products. Those that farm and breed are contributing to the greatest wealth of our culinary capital. Today I believe that carrots or tomatoes farmed through extensive agricultural methods are going to lose ground, they will be less and less chosen for cooking.

EDV: What do you mean by extensive agricultural methods?

MM: It is producing farm products in very large quantity using fertilizers. And I think that we are going to return to the original way of farming fresh products.

EDV: I see, cheaper in higher quantity…

MM: Yes that’s it… because a very big tomato cost one euro and three average size tomatoes cost one euro, and when you eat a big tomato from the garden it is more than enough to satisfy your hunger. You would need three badly cultivated tomatoes to make up for that and you spend the same amount of money.

EDV: Are young people able to recognize that?

MM: Young people educated in that discipline can. As for those who are not… I don’t know what we are going to do with them. I would advise parents to set aside one hour per week cooking for their children, to rediscover life around the table and discussions around a meal where one would say “I bought these potatoes last week while we were away at such and such place…” and they will know they are eating those particular potatoes. So, to have gone out to buy the potatoes, brought them home and stored them in the best possible way until the time comes to peel them and cook them, this calls for respect and those potatoes will not be eaten in the same manner that those purchased from the greengrocer downstairs, or in town, that’s if we cook them in water…if they have not been bought already prepared.

So I believe that people have to return to the way things were. In the eighties, some architect designed kitchens that look like lounges. We need to go back to the homely kitchen.

EDV: Some people say that chefs are artists…

MM: Yes I think so, in a conceptual manner. In the realization of our trade we are artisans and in the conceptual dimension of the research it requires… yes… because we work a little bit like musicians would. They have their musical chords and we have our taste buds chords: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy; with five flavors we make millions and millions of recipes!

EDV: And it is also a visual experience, not only the blending of flavors but you also look after the appearance of your dishes.

MM: Well, nature has provided for us the colors red, yellow, green… blue does not work in food, black, with the exception of truffle and caviar, does not work either. Therefore the color scheme for food remain within primary colors… it is between green, white, red and yellow and that’s where its stops.

EDV: Has the presentation evolved?

MM: Ah yes, presentation has evolved in as much as the portions have become smaller, sauces that were hiding the flavor of food have been removed and replaced by lighter gravies and spices that accompany a dish and they too have become a lot lighter. In forty years, I have witnessed a great evolution, it has been exceptional and with the knowledge I have of France I can say that we have never eaten as well as we do now, never before.

EDV: Recently some people have told me that there were more three-stars restaurants in Japan that in France. Should French restaurants overseas be evaluated in the same manner as French restaurants in France? What is your take on that?

MM: I shall not answer this type of question. Some imbeciles believed that it was better to attribute distinctions outside of the country. It is their choice not mine.

EDV: But the question is: can one eat French cuisine outside of France?

MM: No! The products are not the same. It is heresy. When I see the number of three-star French restaurants in Japan, I say …. pfff! Really, I think those that live in France are truly imbeciles…either that or they do not know the director.

EDV: I also wonder about something else…when I see the work required to own a restaurant, particularly for those that do not form part of a big organization with a lot of money, for those that are independent owners, if you do not have talent, if you do not do a great job… you won’t make it.

MM: Yes, it’s the end for them. There are two types in our line of work that operate at two different paces. There are the great investors and the simple owners like us, those that operate with their heart, their faith and the many number of working hours they invest in it.

EDV: So then I wonder about the next generation… Will they be able to do what you have done? Will they have the spirit to create something out of nothing as you have done with your restaurant? What is your opinion?

MM: So this is a good question, but not one that a man of my age can answer. I can only comment a little about it: the children that have been brought up witnessing all the benefits and all the down sides of our profession will maybe keep in mind the benefits. For instance those benefits will be to be able to go to the Bernardins or Chez Goulue and always have a table ready there even without booking it and not having to pay for it. That is the respect that chefs have between each other. Another benefit is to go somewhere and receive a medal. That makes us proud because after all we are “dramatic” people. After spending 15 hours a day in our business, sometime we love an hour during which we can enjoy being the little king of the moment. I have no problem with that. No, I believe it is human nature that causes even a child or another chef to be interested in this kind of benefit. Those unfamiliar with this sort of thing who have access to the position via cooking, want to imitate their chef. It’s what we call motivation. It’s what we call in French la niaque which means to be strong and determined, with a lot of will power. That person says to himself, “I will do it this way, I will succeed,” and he will in time as his era allows him to. There will always be people with ambition and passion.

EDV: Do you think so?

MM: Yes I do.

EDV: So then there is hope?

MM: Well yes … If we had lived like they did in Russia forty years ago, we would not have had the opportunity to have ambition. But we still live in countries where ambition is not a sin.

EDV: Thank you very much then.

A weekend in Mexico City

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

A view of Santa Fe from the rooftop of our hotel

The view from the rooftop of our Santa Fe hotel

It had been years since my last visit to Mexico City. After the immigration desk I made my way into the customs area where I first noticed the new airport building. I later discovered Terminal 2, spacious and new looking, was only several years old and said to already be struggling to accommodate traffic. After a few minutes my suitcase rolled out and I walked to the customs area where my luggage, check-in and carry-on, had to pass through an x-ray machine. Then I was asked to press a green button before I could continue. Depending on the response I might be subjected to further inspection, one of the customs staff explained.

Sunrise over Santa Fe

From the rooftop of The Westin I watched the sunrise over Santa Fe

No further inspection was required although my wireless keyboard attracted the customs staff attention for some reason. As I exited the customs area I searched the crowd for someone with a sign. Fidencio, my driver that day, and an assistant greeted me warmly. From the airport to The Westin Santa Fe Mexico City (Av. Javier Barros Sierra # 540, Lomas de Santa Fe, Mexico City 01219 México, DF, +52 55 50 89 80 00, fax +52 55 50 89 80 58, www.westin.com/santafe, westin.santafe@westin.com), my hotel for the first night, the private transport took 90 minutes. As we drove I looked around and realized I hardly recognized the traffic jammed buzzing metropolis. From my tenth story 34 square meter Deluxe Room, on a Starwood Preferred Guest floor, I had a splendid view of Santa Fe, a recently built booming business neighborhood. The hotel itself had only been established in August 2010.

There were pretty flowers in the common areas of our hotel

There were flower arrangements in the hotel common areas

Dinner with the group of four I was joining, wasn’t for several hours so I ordered a room service club sandwich with fries. Within minutes I was munching the hot and yummy comfort food and a few welcome sweets I found in my room to tide me over until dinner. From Santa Fe to the La Roma neighborhood multi-level home of Chef Monica Patiño where we were having a private dinner it was an hour’s drive, less on the drive back once the traffic had quieted down.

My masseuse at the Heavenly Spa

Griselda, my masseuse at Heavenly Spa

The following morning I rose early to catch the colorful sunrise view and work out at the hotel gym on the top floor before heading to the buffet breakfast at the ground floor restaurant. By 10:30 a.m. I was enjoying a good deep tissue massage with mini facial (not a favorite) courtesy of Griselda at the Heavenly Spa Westin, the hotel’s penthouse spa.

The exterior of the Soumaya Museum

The exterior of the Soumaya Museum

By midday we checked out, leaving Santa Fe behind, making our way through heavy traffic for one hour to Museo Soumaya (Soumaya Museum), a 14-month old six-story structure housing fine art originals, mostly European and Mexican.

The entrance to Carolo Carso

The entrance to Carolo Carso within a shopping mall and mixed use complex

From the museum we walked to Carolo Carso (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Polanco, Mexico City, D.F., 11529, Mexico, +52 55 49 76 01 34, www.carolo.com.mx, info@carolo.com.mx), a Mediterranean style open air casual restaurant with an upper level view of the museum, within a large mixed use complex. It was one of several Carolo restaurants in the Mexican capital. Lunch consisted of a series of appetizer style dishes shared by the table occupants: Ensalada Chop (Chop Salad), Cuadritos de Atún (Tuna Squares), Mosaico de Salmones (Salmon Plate), Carpaccio de Res (Beef Carpaccio), Tacos de Rib Eye (Rib Eye Tacos), Tacos de Pato (Duck Tacos), Pizza Margarita (Margarita Pizza, a favorite), Risotto de Alcachofa (Artichoke Risotto, a favorite), Tostadas Orientales (Oriental Toasts), and Carmarones a los Tres Chiles (Shrimps in a Three Chili Sauce). Desserts too were set in the middle of the table for communal sharing: Pastel de Coco (Coconut Pie), Príncipe Alberto (Prince Albert Cake), Key Lime Pie, and Pastel de Tres Leches (Three Milks Cake).

Artichoke Risotto

Artichoke Risotto

Lunch at Carolo Carso

Lunch at Carolo Carso

Marco de la O, executive chef, Carolo Group

Marco de la O, executive chef, Carolo Group

At the end of the meal we had an opportunity to meet Marco de la O, executive chef, Carolo Group. A native of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco he studied at the Universidad Anáhuac and at Panamericana de Hotelería in Mexico. De la O, who strives for excellence in quality, flavor and presentation, started his career at the Nikko Hotel in Mexico City. Later he worked at the Four Seasons in New York before returning to Mexico City.

The entrance of the Anthropology Museum

The entrance of the Anthropology Museum

A representation of the Stone of the Sun at the Anthropology Museum

A representation of the Stone of the Sun at the Anthropology Museum

After lunch, we headed to the famous Anthropology Museum (Museo de Antropología) where Laura, a knowledgeable and patient guide escorted us to the Sala Maya (Maya Hall) for an outstanding, though brief because we arrived late, guided visit. A thirty minute drive saw us at the entrance of The St. Regis Mexico City hotel (Paseo de la Reforma 439 Colonia Cuauhtemoc Mexico City, Federal District 06500,Mexico, +52 55 52 28 18 18, fax +52 55 52 28 18 26, www.stregis.com/mexicocity, mexico.city@stregis.com) facing the Diana the Hunter (Diana La Cazadora) roundabout water fountain for check-in on the third floor of the tall building.

My room at The St. Regis Mexico City

My room at The St. Regis Mexico City

The hotel’s spacious common areas were filled with sunlight, works of art and pretty flower arrangements. Friendly uniformed staff greeted us when we reached the lobby and escorted us to our respective accommodations following check-in procedures. The floor destination had to be selected on an outer panel with the electronic key card before entering the elevator, my staff escort explained.

Mexico City is reflected in the mirrors of the St. Regis gym
Mexico City seen from the St. Regis gym

Among my favorite features of the hotel were the lobby level views of the water fountain and the panoramic views of the city from the 15 floor work out rooms and adjacent pool area. From my twelfth story 50 square meter (538 square foot) Deluxe Room, on a Starwood Preferred Guest floor, I had a splendid view of Paseo de la Reforma and the surrounding neighborhood. Muted city sounds reached inside. Complimentary amenities on my floor were butler service, on demand 24-hour complimentary hot beverage service and the pressing of two items during my stay, my butler explained. The dimly lit room decorated in natural colors had thick double curtains to fend of the harsh sunlight, two double beds with thick plush mattresses and feather pillows, and a spacious marble bathroom with bathtub and separate shower, as well as a small remote controlled television screen built into the oversize mirror behind and between twin sinks. The new looking hotel dated to August 2009.

A black bean and foie gras appetizer
A black bean and foie gras appetizer at Dulce Patria

Dulce Patria restaurant (Anatole France 100, Col. Polanco, 11560, Mexico City, Mexico, +52 55 33 00 39 99, fax +52 55 33 00 39 95, www.dulcepatriamexico.com, kosberg@dulcepatriamexico.com), where we had a refined Mexican meal, was only twenty minutes from the St. Regis. Shortly after breakfast the following day we drove forty-five minutes across town to the Mercado de San Angel, a large covered odorous market filled with fruit and vegetable, fish, meat and a variety of other vendors.

Margarito Angeles Ramirez sold herbs at the market

Margarito Angeles Ramirez sold herbs at the market

Our first stop was at the stall of Margarito Angeles Ramirez who, after learning the skill from his grandmother, for 22 years had sold herb blends at the Mexico City market. A large mound of fragrant fresh herbs occupied the front of his stall which was chock full of items all the way to the rear wall and from the ceiling down. A variety of amulets, candles, dried herbs and plastic wrapped items took up most of the small space that was sandwiched between other market vendors down a narrow passageway. While we learned about his services, in Spanish, from Margarito several customers came by, squeezing through the tight space where we stood, to pick up their herb blends and orders.

Vendor stalls at the Mercado de San Angel

Vendor stalls at the Mercado de San Angel

With herbal blends, Angeles Ramirez said, he could, like a pharmacist, alleviate ailments such as allergies, migraines, headaches, indigestion and minor aches. He also provided mystical or magical white magic Santeria potions for good luck charms, attraction, and love. Prices ranged from five pesos to twenty thousand pesos. Some blends could be prepared while the customers waited while others required twenty days to be ready.

An unusual stop

An unusual stop

From the market a short walk led us to the Public Baths (Baño Público), a fee based public steam and Turkish bath facility the owner kindly, if reluctantly, allowed us to visit. The San Jacinto Parrish (Parroquia de San Jacinto) was our next stop. Built atop an Indian temple the church, our guide explained, was important because it was at commercial crossroads of the 1500s. The church, as many others in the city, he said, had suffered severe damage in the early twentieth century although several original structures remained.

From the church we walked back a few blocks to the Saturday Bazaar (Bazaar del Sábado), a popular weekly indoor and outdoor arts and crafts market, where we spent the better part of an hour before heading to lunch at Azul Condesa, one of several Azul restaurants headed by Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, in the Condesa neighborhood.

Favorite dishes at Azul Condesa

Favorite dishes at Azul Condesa

Favorite dishes at Azul Condesa

At lunch, we sat in an open air interior courtyard. Every table was full and the volume was so loud I could only hear my immediate neighbors at the table. Appetizers included several Yucatan dishes: Sope de Cochinita Pibil, a bite size morsel of succulent shredded pork topped with red onions that had been marinated in Yucatan bitter orange atop a sope, corn made bread cooked on a skillet; Sope de Hongos, a mushroom topped sope; and Salpicón de Venado, a European venison morsel made with onion, tomato, spicy chilies served with avocado and tortilla chips. My favorite was the Sope de Cochinita Pibil.

For starter I ordered the creamy Cream of Cilantro Soup served with toasted almonds, one of few non hot items on the menu. I sampled my neighbor’s juicy Duck Confit served with a red berry and plum sauce (a favorite) and my own dish, Roasted Skirt Steak served with home fries. From the dessert menu the server recommended Soursop Foam with a red berry sauce. Chili candies were served with coffee at the end of the meal.

Tuscan spa was my playground of bliss

By Laura Scheiber
Photos by Mathew Harris

Adler Spa Resorts Sign 3 - Sunshine (Best)

A sign for Adler Thermae Spa & Relax Resort Tuscany

When I arrived at the spa reception desk on the ground floor of the Adler Spa in the town of Bagno Vignoni in Italy, the manager, Minnie Romano, who had spoken with me the week before on the phone, warmly welcomed me to the spa. She offered me a seat in the waiting area where I enjoyed the views through large glass windows of the hotel’s thermal pool with indoor and outdoor sections, and the breathtaking Tuscan countryside serving as the backdrop.

Veronica Maione, a truly gifted aesthetician

Veronica Maione, a gifted esthetician

My first treatment, the Brunello Ritual, began when my therapist, Veronica Maione, escorted me to a dark room with a calming ambiance in the treatment area of the spa. After giving me privacy so I could remove my clothes and slip into my robe, Veronica reentered the room and offered me a wet towel doused in scents of lemon, orange and verbena to wash my face and hands. She then gently rubbed essential oils in the middle of my forehead and the palms of my hands while wishing me, in a soothing voice, well being and harmony. This prelude to my treatment took place in the entryway of the room, which I later found out was an intentional ritual to help guests disconnect from the outside world and focus their attention on their treatment.

The water beds in the relaxation room

The waterbeds in the relaxation room

The ritual was surprisingly effective. I immediately felt more relaxed and more attentive to the unique Tuscan spa treatment that I was about to experience. What ensued was a 45-minute relaxation massage with Tuscan red grape seed oil, followed by a 12-minute soak in a tub filled with bubbling warm water and a pitcher’s worth of Brunello wine to enhance blood circulation, followed by 15 minutes of relaxing on a waterbed while nibbling on a plate of four distinct pecorino cheeses and sipping a glass of Brunello wine. Brunello wine, I had learned during a prior wine tour, was considered one of Italy’s most prestigious wines and could only be found in the neighboring town of Montalcino. The overall effect that the Brunello Ritual treatment had on me was a mentally and physically relaxed state, juxtaposed with a feeling of increased blood circulation, as if I had just come back from a long jog.

Bagna Vignoni hot spring, where the spa waters originate

A sign pointed to Bagno Vignoni, where the thermal spa waters originate

View onto Traverton Lake from treatment room

View onto Travertin Lake from my treatment room

The next day I enjoyed the Poppea Massage, a 50-minute relaxation massage in which the therapist used a deliciously scented cream made from locally produced honey and sheep’s milk, immediately followed by the Excellence Anti-aging Facial. While I enjoyed all three treatments, I was most impressed with the Excellence Anti-aging Facial. When I returned to my guestroom, my husband immediately commented on how glowing my complexion looked and questioned if I had received additional beauty treatments. For the rest of the evening he complemented me on how radiant my skin looked. The next day, I could not resist buying the Adler Spa Fitomelatonina Crema Rivitalizzante, a cream with a high concentration of melatonin, which was recommended to me by the spa staff to compliment the effects of the facial treatment.

Olivae, Finnish Sauna on the Travertin Lake

Olivae, Finnish Sauna on the Travertin Lake

On our third day at Adler Thermae Spa and Relax Resort Tuscany (see Three days at rejuvenating Tuscan spa resort), my husband and I had a delightful afternoon, taking advantage of the sauna and steam rooms surrounding the thermal water lake that I had seen from the entryway of the hotel. We spent 15 minutes in a humidity room followed by a rest on an individual waterbed in the relaxation area before moving onto the next humidity room. By sunset, I felt like I had reached a new state of relaxation that I don’t ever remember experiencing before spending time at Adler Spa.

A visit to two Burgundy villages

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Saint Per sous Vezelay

Saint Pere sous Vezelay

While I was in Burgundy I had a chance to see the well known hilltop town of Vezelay and nearby the village of Saint Pere sous Vezelay. My local guide explained that Vezelay was a popular tourist town. We were fortunate. It was only raining lightly that day. Because of the constant rain in the past few days streets, shops and attractions were empty or near empty, allowing us to enjoy the town at our leisure.

The Vezelay Basilica

The Vezelay Basilica

In Vezelay, we parked the car in the designated metered parking area and walked up a narrow street to the church and lookout area a the top. On our way, we stopped at the Musée Zervos Maison Romain Rolland, a restored home and exhibit space for the work of Christian Zervos, a publisher and art critic, and Romain Rolland, a political writer. The museum had been recommended by one of the owners of the hotel where I was staying. As we continued we glimpsed the exterior of city hall and browsed at several shop windows along the way.

A restored building in Vezelay

A restored building in Vezelay

By the time we reached the top fortunately there was a break in the rain. We were the only ones at the viewpoint. The view of the valley and the village of Saint Pere was memorable. From there we visited the adjacent Basilica of Vezelay.

There were temptations along the way

There were temptations along the way

While in town, we made time for tea and a pastry at a cafe and shop that sold Asian artifacts and offered guest accommodations; we stopped at a wine and regional products shop and at Atelier Marie Noelle, a small shop selling locally manufactured silk and wool products (69 rue Saint Pierre, 89450 Vezelay, +33 03 86 33 26 02).

The facade of Atelier Marie-Noelle

The facade of Atelier Marie-Noelle

The ceramic shop owner showed us around her exhibit space

The ceramic shop owner showed us around her exhibit space

In Saint Pere sous Vezelay, we walked along the streets near our hotel, Domaine de L’Espérance Marc Meneau (see Boutique Burgundy hotel offered elegant accommodations, gourmet meals, area tours). Along our way we saw a bakery and the outside of the village church. At Poterie de Saint Pere (2, ruelle de l’eglise, 89450, St.-Pere-sous Vezelay, +33 03 86 33 35 07, www.poterie-st-pere.com), a ceramic atelier and showroom near the church, we met the owner Sylvie Wlotkowski who kindly showed us her handmade functional pottery and ikebana work. We had hopes of visiting the town’s wood workshop, said to be extraordinary, but a friendly neighbor informed us the owner was out of town.

Behind the scenes at gourmet Burgundy restaurant

Article and photos by Elena del Valle

Marc Meneau and his chefs

Marc Meneau (third from the left) and his chefs

While I was at Domaine de L’Espérance Marc Meneau in the village of Saint Pere sous Vezelay in Burgundy, France I had a chance to visit the kitchen and see two chefs, including Marc Meneau, the executive chef and owner, at work one morning. I had dined at the restaurant (see Garden side dining at famed Burgundy restaurant) during my stay at the hotel (see Boutique Burgundy hotel offered elegant accommodations, gourmet meals, area tours) and was intrigued to watch the kitchen staff in action. I was the sole visitor to take advantage of the restaurant cooking demonstrations that day. It had been raining almost incessantly since I arrived in France and I imagined the quiet ambiance at the hotel would disappear once the skies cleared.

Inside the insulated boxes was a treasure trove of seafood

Inside the insulated boxes was a treasure trove of seafood

Shortly after I arrived in the kitchen the seafood delivery truck staff began unloading their precious coastal cargo and the chef asked if I was interested in watching them process their order. I would be delighted to observe, I responded, and we descended a few stairs to the back of the restaurant, making our way toward a stack of Styrofoam containers that had just been delivered.

The ingredients for that morning's dish

The ingredients for that morning’s dish

Almost at the same time a handful of diligent staff members began counting, sorting and storing the chilled seafood. Within minutes everything was organized and the truck had departed. The chef selected three langoustines from the just arrived boxes for that morning’s demonstration which I had the pleasure to observe and taste hot just off the stove.

From delivery to read in minutes and someone had to eat it

From delivery to ready in minutes

Just as I finished tasting the langoustine dish, standing in a corner of the kitchen, Chef Meneau arrived. A tall imposing figure with seemingly infinite amounts of energy he walked at a brisk pace instructing staff as he moved from one side or the other of the brightly lit kitchen like a whirling dervish. One moment we were in the kitchen and the next we were walking in the chilly outdoors, visiting his organic garden. Most of the fruits, herbs and vegetables served in the restaurants, he explained, were grown on the property. As we walked we met one of the gardeners tending to the budding greens. That explained the tender, crispy and flavorful produce I had tasted at meal times.

Marc Meneau demonstrates the preparation of his popular Huites en gelée d'eau de mer oyster dish

Marc Meneau demonstrates the preparation of his popular Huites en gelée d'eau de mer oyster dish

Marc Meneau demonstrates the preparation of his popular Huites en gelée d’eau de mer oyster dish

Moments later, we were back in the warm kitchen and the chef invited me to watch him prepare his well known oysters in sea water dish. The secret, he said as he began, is never to wash the oysters but instead allow them to keep their natural ocean flavor. The ingredients were fresh oysters and their washed, brushed shells; gelatin sheets, shallots, white wine, cream, lemon juice, chopped watercress leaves, toast and Camembert cheese.