Tag Archives: wine

Fountain at Place des Jacobins, Lyon

Speaking French and buying wine in Lyon

I spent the last week in Lyon, France, for a work trip. To be honest, the most exciting part of it was that my hotel room was a lot quieter than my apartment (which is on 3 tram routes) and had airconditioning. “How was your conference?” people have asked me. “It was amazing,” I’ve replied. “I slept so well.”

In Lyon, I discovered that if you speak French to me, I will automatically reply with perfect Italian. Like, better, more fluent, Italian than I have ever used in Italy. I feel like I have discovered a brilliant language-learning strategy here. Pretty sure if I spent a month in France I could come back and write a novel in Italian.

The annoying thing is that I do have some French… At least, I studied French in highschool. To be fair, Australian highschool French is not much, and it was far and away my worst subject, but still. Well, and ok, by “worst subject”, I mean a language assistant once laughed at my accent. But still.

The thing is, in Italy if you’re not obviously fluent in Italian and you’re speaking to someone who does speak English, in my experience at least they’ll switch to English for you, without you asking. (Which is frustrating if you’re trying to practice!) Whereas in Lyon at least, people would often keep going in French, even with me. I went to a tea shop one afternoon and went through the stage of saying I wanted a black tea, and into the stage of indicating I quite liked Darjeeling tea even though I couldn’t remember any conjugations of plaisir, and was well into the oh my goodness when will we end this awful charade that the nonsense coming out of my mouth is French stage before I finally apologized for saying instead of oui for the 10th time because j’habite en Italie and the shop assistant finally offered to switch to English.

At least I got some French practice in.

Apart from the tea shop, my other French shopping experience was wine. In a foolishly generous mood I had texted a friend saying, “you want me to get you any food from France?”. I was thinking about chocolates or biscuits or a tin of pâté or something. The reply came back: “How about a bottle of wine, red or white, anything up to 20 euros and I’ll pay you back”.

I know nothing about French wine. (Actually, any wine.) So then I was asking every French person I know for wine recommendations, and not getting very far. Who knew I knew so many French beer drinkers? Eventually I triangulated what information I had and put myself at the mercy of the guy in the wine shop — who didn’t seem to understand when I said I was looking for a wine quite different to Piedmontese wines, possibly because he didn’t believe that Italian wine could really be called that.

But I wasn’t too worried, since I had a backup plan. A colleague had pointed out that the conference organizers were giving out a free bottle of wine to all attendees.
“So you can tell your friend you have a wine that was recommended by French people,” she said. “You can even say you saw other French people with this wine.”
“And I’ll say it cost me 19 euros,” I added. “Turn a profit.”

I really did buy a 20 euro bottle of wine, I swear.

Hills in Barolo

Wine and pancakes and sandwiches.

So besides winning the War on Pigeons (I am still proud of myself), what have I been up to recently..?

  • Went wine tasting a couple of weeks ago with some friends on a gorgeous Spring afternoon. Rolling hills, rows of vines, magic light as the sun got lower. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to get out of the city until I squatted, absentmindedly patting a friendly farm dog, my eyes drinking in the open space in front of me. Turin is a beautiful city, but sometimes you need a distant horizon.
  • (You’ll notice that’s a description of wine tasting that doesn’t say anything about wine. That’s because the current status of my sense of smell is that a lot of red wines are very pleasant to me, and I could even tell the ones we tried were better than my usual “what’s on special at Da Marco?” bottles, but the only note I can positively identify is the smell of olives. Which I smell in every red wine. Pretty sure a basic requirement for sommeliers is being able to distinguish the scent of wine from olive oil.)
  • My friend C. and I tried to go out for brunch one Saturday, but brunch isn’t really a familiar concept here. “How about we host our own pancake brunch on the Monday public holiday?” I said. So we sent out a group message and got a handful of people saying they’d come.

    “But you’d think the idea would be more popular!” she said… so we went on a bit of an invitation spree at church and suddenly we were spending the Sunday afternoon thinking about what we’d do if the number of people coming greatly outnumbered the number of chairs in my apartment.

    In the end, we made pancakes for 15 people (only 3 in excess of the number of seats!), using 5 batches of this recipe which is the best (I know 3.5 tsp of baking powder sounds ridiculous, but it works! and you can’t taste it). We had a lovely brunch/afternoon of sitting around chatting with old friends and new. I even busted out my emergency Tim Tams later in the day, which is a sure sign of a good party.

    After everyone left, we spied the dregs of a bottle of sparkling wine, and toasted our brunch-hosting success. (Moral of the story: always host parties with C!)

  • Was at dinner on Saturday night with another friend A., and partway through a couple sat down at a table near us. The woman was so! familiar! I spent the rest of the meal wracking my brains, How do I know that woman? Should I go over and say hi? On the bus ride home, Does she live in my building? Or maybe she’s a friend of a friend? I’m sure I know her, I hope she didn’t see me and think I was blanking her. Finally, as I was lying in bed… Oh that’s it! She works in one of the lunch places near my work. So probably a good thing I didn’t go and say hi, since the full extent of our prior contact is “Prendo un panino” and “3 euro 50”.
Festival delle Sagre, Asti, Italy

The time I ate donkey meat – festival delle sagre

“Does asino mean what I think it–”

“Sure does.”

“Alrighty then. How many plates shall we get?”

Asino is Italian for donkey, and the context was a food stall selling meat-stuffed pasta. I’d gone with some friends to the Festival delle Sagre — the Festival of Festivals — a weekend food festival in Asti, south of Torino. Imagine an agricultural show/county fair with a ferris wheel, but with almost all the exhibits being food stalls. There must have been at least 50 of them. And not nasty showgrounds food. Each stall featured one or two freshly-made dishes, the local specialties of villages in a region known internationally for its food.

And now add in the fact that every stand has wine, typically included in the price of food. And you can buy an empty glass that comes with a holder so you can wear it around your neck as you walk around. Genius!



As soon as we’d arrived, we realized we were going to need a strategy for all this. We started with a reconnaisance — walking around, sussing out what options there were. Truffle risotto! Polenta with wild boar! The options were dizzying. By the time we were halfway through our recon run, it was getting hard to not buy everything in sight.

Once we had the lay of the land, we decided on our first stop, which was by far the highlight of the savoury options — friciula, a fried bread-y-pastry-y thing, with fatty pancetta. It came recommended to us, and it was a good call. Fat and starch and salt and everything delicious. “It’s funny, everyone back in England seems to think Italian food is healthy,” said S. We looked at what we were eating and laughed.

Hard at work serving wine to wash down the artery-clogging goodness.

Hard at work serving wine to wash down the artery-clogging goodness.

Our second stop was the agnolotti d’asino, the donkey pasta. I have to admit, I’m not really a huge meat eater and while I could tell the pasta was different to others I’ve had, I don’t know how much was the donkey meat and how much was the flavourings they used. It was tasty, but. And a good discussion starter — if horse is ok to eat, why not donkey? Or to go a step back towards Australian thinking — if cow is ok to eat, why not horse…?

While we were walking around, thinking about what to get next, we hit on the optimal food-finding strategy: hang around the central area where the tables were, look at what other people are eating, and if it looked good, ask them where it was from. It was through this, plus a discussion of whether polenta is similar to ugali, that we ended up with polenta and wild boar stew. (The verdict: polenta is not like ugali, but it is good.)

At this point we were extremely full. “No you finish the polenta; no you; no really, I can’t” level of full. We had to make some serious decisions about desserts. I think we got it right: zabaglione (custard but amazing custard made with wine not, like, custard powder custard), and “chocolate salami”, which is possibly the best chocolate slice I’ve ever had (it doesn’t contain salami, if you were wondering). Two very different options, both delicious.

It was a happy sleepy train ride home, full of food and wine. We are so doing this again next year.