Monthly Archives: April 2013

2013
04/10

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Riga, A City of Architecture — Both Outstandingly Beautiful and Profoundly Ugly

Riga, A City of Architecture —  Both Outstandingly Beautiful and Profoundly Ugly

Bare-breasted women in classical poses are a common sight in Riga, especially on building facades

Bare-breasted women in classical poses are a common sight in Riga, especially on building facades

 

By Steve Bergsman

Photos by the author

 

Riga, the capital of Latvia, is all about the architecture. They say there is no place you can stand in Riga Central without seeing at least three art nouveau buildings. And this impressive notation excludes all the city’s medieval structures, historic churches and post-Renaissance buildings.

With its cobblestone streets and historical prominence, the center of Riga remains a time capsule of lofty delights … or delights of loft living, ancient and modern. As majestic as this may seem, during my visit my mind would not stay focused on Riga’s architectural beauty, but would wander instead to the city’s most architecturally ugly erections – those structures built during the decades when Latvia was part of the Soviet empire.

Most foreign visitors fly into Latvia, so after arrival they take the 20-minute drive into the center of town from the east, passing interesting neighborhoods dotted with older wooden structures of early 20th century vintage. Some restoration has gone on, but there is also a considerable amount of dereliction. None of it was fascinating to me.

A street in Riga's city center

A street in Riga’s city center

The first structure that really challenges the imagination in a perverse way is Vansu Tilts, a bridge over the Daugava River built by the ruling Soviets in the waning decade of their empire. As a guide told me, this was a conciliatory sop to city after 40 years of really not doing much to modernized Riga’s infrastructure. The shape is not unique – it’s a singlr, stylized arch of considerable height with cable supports running at 45 degrees down to the bridge itself. You can find something similar in Boston.

Still, it has a monolithic, grandioise, Soviet style that is little appreciated by the citizens of Riga, who take note of the sets of five cable lines and derogatorily call it the (expletive-deleted) guitar.

I left Riga via Vansu Tilts, but I arrived from the north after a long drive from Estonia. As I entered the main roadway that fed into the center of the city, I was absolutely enchanted by the Soviet-era apartment complexes that lined the traffic corridor. Now, I’ve been to other Eastern European cities once part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence – and Cuba as well – and the mendacity of form if not clunkiness of function is often as mesmerizing in a polar-opposite way as something designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Riga might be able to boast the penultimate in proletarian, post-war barrack housing – as well as great art nouveau.

City center street, Riga

On the outskirts of Riga, there is complexity to the endless stretches of mid-rise mediocrity. Usually in Soviet block housing, a drab sameness prevails, but in Riga one can actually see the devolution of a necessity ideal – housing for the working class.

Since I had never seen in one place the shifting pattern of declination in Soviet apartment architecture before, I never realized there were patterns defined by eras.

First in the timeline are the nine-story buildings of the Leonid Brezhnev era, circa 1970s-early 1980s. These buildings utilized the latest in Soviet engineering, pre-formed concrete panels, which meant structures could be erected with considerable speed. As could be expected, these buildings are the most grim.

The next highlight in apartment living are the five-story buildings of the Nikita Khrushchev era, circa 1950s to 1960s. While older, these structures are much more substantial than the newer apartment blocks.

An early example of Art Nouveau ornamentation, Riga

An early example of Art Nouveau ornamentation, Riga

It’s only as you get closer to the city that you see the apex of Soviet state construction, the Josef Stalin-era buildings of the late 1940s-early 1950s, built of brick with plaster facades in a kind pseudo-baroque style. A guide assured me these building were of good quality.

What you get here in Riga is a reverse paradigm. Stalin did it best and then each succeeding head of the Soviet Union managed to screw it up just a little more than the guy who preceded him at the center of the podium when the Red Army marched by.

There is a certain irony in all this, because under the Communist system, Riga suffered architecturally, but when Riga was part of Tsarist Russia before Word War I, the city blossomed with art nouveau.

 

The difference had to do with the effects of capitalist expansion.

 

At the turn of the 20th century Riga was an important port, and international goods flowed through the city on the way to St. Petersburg and Russia or from the interior of Russia to Europe and the rest of the world. The population boomed from 250,000 in 1895 to 600,000 in 1914, the middle class expanded, and the mercantile strata became wealthier. The bourgeoisie wanted to live in housing commensurate with their improved standard of living. New apartment blocks were erected, designed by important architects who were infused with spirit of the reigning design concept of the era, art nouveau, incorporating more natural lines and stylized ornamental facades.

 

Soviet era statues

Soviet era statues

The first great art nouveau buildings in Riga were built around the year 1900, reaching a zenith of form in those first decades due to the unique efforts of one of the more creative families in Russia, the Eisensteins.

 

Film aficionados would probably rank The Battleship Potemkin as one of the great movies of all time. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, it was intended to be a Communist Revolution propaganda film, but it transcended the genre because of Eisenstein’s advanced editing techniques — particularly in the celebrated scene in Odessa where a baby carriage bounces down the steps after the mother is shot dead.

 

Eisenstein inherited his creative genius from his father, Mikhail Eisenstein, who, as the most famous architect in Riga’s history, designed a series of apartment blocks in exorbitant art nouveau styles that are captivatingly beautiful to this day. Many of his finest buildings can be seen on the street called Alberta Iela (Alberta Street), which is literally a street of nothing else but art nouveau architecture.

 

Son Sergei might have toiled for the Communists, but father Mikhail was employed by successful burghers and profiteers seeking to flaunt style along with substance.

My personal favorite art nouveau structure is the residential building at Alberta Iela 13. Ornate to the extreme, the building features balustrades, balconies, classical motifs, horizontal line concepts, and columns, and is topped and flanked by statues of two women with their hands clasped behind their heads, seemingly screaming in either fright or excitement.

 

In 2009, the city opened an Art Nouveau Museum at Alberta Street 12 that exhibits an art nouveau-styled apartment, and shows a short movie documenting the history of art nouveau in Riga. The circa-1903 building was designed by a Latvian architect, Konstantins Peksens, and showcases the most gorgeous, if not ornately decorated, stairwell I’ve ever seen. Just peer upwards from the bottom of the stairwell and you can get lost in the sightlines.

 

A woman selling her crafts in Riga's Old Town

A woman selling her crafts in Riga’s Old Town

The brave of heart might want to compare this stairwell to any in a state-built, Soviet-era buildings, where the only ornamentation is badly drawn graffiti and scattered trash. The stairwell designed by Peksens is uplifting, while those in Soviet block housing says, abandon hope.

 

If you only get to study one art nouveau building in Riga, make it the Eisenstein-designed school building at Strelnieku Iela 4, which was completed in 1904. It is richly ornamented with menacing helmeted heads looking vaguely Darth Vaderish and stylized Greek warriors, called maskeroni, on the mezzanine floors.

 

Riga has sometimes been called a party town. Ryan Air, Europe’s discount airline, flies into the city, and young people take the cheap flights then carouse in the city’s cafés and bars.

 

Party-down appears to be a recent phenomenon, but my guess is that this type of behavior has historical precedents, as so many buildings are adorned with bare-breasted women looking vaguely classical in their poses. Eisenstein’s school building boasts a formidable army of topless babes, who are perfect in physical attributes. Or, as one Eisenstein interpreter wrote, the statues are the “messengers of creative thought and beauty.”

 

Looking up are the building’s statuesque beauties, I had a few creative thoughts of my own.

 

 

If YOU GO:

 

GETTING THERE: I flew Finnair from New York to Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. Then, after traveling through the Baltic countries, left Europe from Riga, Latvia, to Helsinki and back to New York. www.finnair.com

 

ACCOMMODATIONS: My accommodations in Riga were in Old Town’s Hotel Gutenbergs. The building was centuries old, but my room was pleasant and modern. Watch out for those old beams, though. Great restaurant on the roof. www.gutenbergs.eu/en

 

DINING: Besides a very good lunch and dinner at the roof top restaurant at the Hotel Gutenbergs, I recommend of couple of other Riga hotspots. For more traditional Latvian fare, try Zila Bovs (Blue Cow) on the Old Town section. www.zila-govs.lv. However if you find yourself on the opposite side of the Daugava River, try Ostas Skati, it has a great river view on the restaurant is right on the shore. www.restoransostasskati.lv.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2013
04/10

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Stuffed Like A Duck: Foie Gras on the Flavor Trail

Stuffed Like A Duck: Foie Gras on the Flavor Trail

(a moto-foodie adventure)

 

The Fairmont Manoir Richelieu is a famous luxury hotel that overlooks the St. Lawrence River at Pointe au Pic La Malbaie

The Fairmont Manoir Richelieu is a famous luxury hotel that overlooks the St. Lawrence River at Pointe au Pic La Malbaie

by Ken Aiken

Photos by the author

 

By anyone’s standards we were late for supper.  Belt Drive Betty’s plane landed in Quebec City behind schedule and after getting her situated in a sidecar taxi from Éco-Mobilité we rode to Point-au-Pic as dusk became night. Quickly changing from motorcycle leathers to more formal attire we met our hosts in the Fairmont Manoir Richelieu’s elegant Charlevoix restaurant.  This wasn’t to be a normal dining experience. Under the guidance of executive chef Patrick Turcot, we were there to learn how to prepare one of the hotel’s signature recipes: smoked foie gras with honey glazed apples and cider mistelle.

There are those who think that foie gras represents cruelty to animals. Combining ignorance with best intentions these “animal rights” activists have passionately created a propaganda campaign that has resulted in a legal ban in California of the sale—in stores and restaurants—of this traditional culinary delicacy.

The Remy bakery not only produces a variety of breads in its wood-fired brick ovens, but pizza and pies as well

The Remy bakery not only produces a variety of breads in its wood-fired brick ovens, but pizza and pies as well

The ire of these activists is focused on gavage, a process of force feeding ducks and geese to enlarge their livers that was developed by the ancient Egyptians.  Today, France annually produces about 18,450 tons of foie gras, or roughly 79% of the world supply.  In contrast the U.S. produces about 340 tons, and Canada 200.  Large-scale production methods use mechanical and pressurized devices to force pre-measured amounts of grain into the birds’ gullets.  Time is money and there’s no doubt that industrial methods can be callous, but the same can be, and has been, said about commercial poultry farms and raising livestock.  However, there is a better way and the proof is in the pudding—or paté.

 

The Charlevoix region is a giant meteorite impact crater and the topography that makes it such a spectacular place for motorcyclists is also responsible for creating microclimates that are advantageous for agriculture.  The Charlevoix became first place in Canada to embrace the Italian-based Slow Foods movement and one of the very first to establish a tourism Flavor Trail and create a farm-to-table program.

This morning we’re riding across the crater from La Malbaie to the small village of Saint-Urbain.  We’ve taken the Mountain Route / La Route des Montagnes, a series of roads that follow a curved ridge formed by the meteorite impact.  Imagine throwing a rock into thick mud — but where the rebounding splash and concentric waves are immediately frozen in place for 340 million years and worn into smooth contours by great glaciers of past Ice Ages, and you’ll have a sense of this unique topography.

The edge of the Charlevoix crater as seen from the Mountain Route

The edge of the Charlevoix crater as seen from the Mountain Route

Our first stop is at the Basque Farm/Le Ferme Basque, a member of the Flavor Trail that exemplifies the farm-to-table movement.  Isabelle and Jean-Jacques are from France and raise their ducks according to traditional methods.  Last night we feasted on foie gras from this farm, and today we are going to see how it is produced.  The birds are outside in age-segregated groups of about 300 and each group has its own expansive grass-covered yard.  The ducks are fated to have short lives, but even during the ten-day process of twice-daily gavage feeding they are treated with care so that they don’t become stressed.  This is one of the secrets that make their ducks taste so much better than others on the market: there are no stress-related hormones in the meat or liver.

Following the narrow valley of the Geoffe River it’s only six miles from St-Urbain to Baie-St-Paul, but depending upon the number of stops and how long we linger at any of them it could take us quite a while to get there.  Our next one is at Maison d’affinage Maurice Dufour.

A handful of breweries in the world produce a premium beer by the champagne process, but Microbrasserie Charlevoix is the only one that handles all parts of the process in-house

A handful of breweries in the world produce a premium beer by the champagne process, but Microbrasserie Charlevoix is the only one that handles all parts of the process in-house

The award-winning Le Mingeron is just one of several incredible cheeses produced by Maurice Dufour

The award-winning Le Mingeron is just one of several incredible cheeses produced by Maurice Dufour

I consider Maurice Dufour to be a genius in the creation of artisan cheese.  On his small farm nestled snug against towering cliffs he created his award-winning Le Migneron (2002 Grand Prize for Canadian Cheese) and then went on to develop Le Ciel de Charlevoix, the famous Charlevoix bleu cheese made from cow’s milk (2009 Grand Prize).  As fantastic as these are, I prefer two of his more recent products:  Le Bleu de Brebis, a bleu made from sheep’s milk, and Le Secret, an absolutely unique creamy brie-like cheese that’s also made from sheep’s milk.  So after a little nibbling and a couple of purchases we mount back up on the bikes and continue along Route 138.

At the Remy mill/Moulin de Rémy, locally grown organic wheat is ground in a 185-year old, water-powered gristmill, and the bakery produces an array of scrumptious breads, including their signature Le Meteorite sourdough, in wood-fired brick ovens.  As the millwright opens the sluice and the rush of water begins to slowly turn the massive white-oak waterwheel, the mill comes to life with a groan.  The weight of falling water is transferred through wooden shafts and gears to rotate the antique French granite grindstones.  It’s almost a lost art and Patrick Goslin literally grinds by smell while demonstrating that just a single liter-size scoop of grain is capable of slowing two stories of massive gearing to a near standstill.

Muscovy ducks at the Basque Farm live a somewhat short, but stress-free life

Muscovy ducks at the Basque Farm live a somewhat short, but stress-free life

Our next stop is just down the road at the Charlevoix Creamery/ Laiterie Charlevoix.  The Labbé family moved from dairy farming to producing cheddar cheese in 1948.  In turn they expanded to a partnership with Maurice Dufour in the production of Le Migneron and the creation of their own line of artisan cheeses.  Their deli store offers the most extensive selection of Charlevoix food products in the region, with picture windows that allow visitors to watch cheddar being made.  A long-time friend, Robert Benoit, has prepared us a cheese plate that includes their Hercules, 1608, L’Origine, and Fleumier.  The Hercules is a hard cheese made from Jersey cow’s milk from a neighboring farm and Le Fleumier is a soft cheese that begins with milk obtained from farms in this small valley.  The 1608 is a hard cheese while L’Origine is soft, but both use only milk from the Canadienne cow, a breed that is being brought back from near

Foie gras on the plate.  Yumm

Foie gras on the plate. Yumm

extinction on three farms in the Charlevoix.  Besides being absolutely delicious, these cheeses represent a commitment to sustainable family farming while the Labbé’s new multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art whey methonation plant demonstrates ecological commitment to reducing a carbon footprint while at the same time releasing only pure “waste” water into the environment.

 

 

 

Frying foe gras in the kitchen of the Fairmont’s chic Charlevoix Restaurant

Frying foe gras in the kitchen of the Fairmont’s chic Charlevoix Restaurant

Finally we make it to the charming village of Baie-Saint-Paul for lunch at Le Saint Pub, a microbrewery that is listed among the top 50 in the world. It’s one of the few that makes a champagne beer — and the only one in the world that does the entire process, start to finish, in-house. Although they create a few special seasonal brews onsite, demand for their signature Dominus Vobiscum and the champagne beer has required them to establish an ultra-modern brewery a few blocks away from the pub.

 

 

We settle in on the expansive patio for a lunch of local cuisine:  foie gras topped with apple jelly as an appetizer, onion soup made with Dominus Vobiscum beer and topped with Le Mingeron, bison burgers, homemade chips, salad, and champagne beer.  Life is good.

Foie gras served at the Basque Farm

Foie gras served at the Basque Farm

Members of the famous Flavor Trail are allowed to hang a wooden sign with the logo of a chef’s hat outside their establishment, and those who qualify are permitted by the region’s tourism office to hang a similar wooden sign with a motorcycle logo outside of theirs.  Those displaying both signs are winners in my book since on most summer weekends the village of Baie-Saint-Paul appears to be hosting a medium-size motorcycle rally with long lines of bikes parked rear to the curb or clustered in parking lots along the main streets. Ride to Eat; Eat to Ride should be the official motto for the Charlevoix region.

 

There are two more gristmills to visit this afternoon—one which dates back to 1790—a cider producer that offers an delicious wines and mistelles, and my favorite chocolate maker this side of the Atlantic Ocean.  The Flavor Trail will lead us to another exquisite restaurant where I happen to know another mouth-watering foie gras dish is on the menu.  Life is good, even if I am stuffed like a duck.

1608 cheese is one of the award-winning products of Laiterie Charlevoix, spearheading the restoration of a nearly extinct breed of cow and helping to improve the economics of small family farms

1608 cheese is one of the award-winning products of Laiterie Charlevoix, spearheading the restoration of a nearly extinct breed of cow and helping to improve the economics of small family farms

Smoked foie gras from the Ferme de Basque with fresh sea salt

Honey glazed apples with a cider syrup

(as served at The Fairmont Manoir Richelieu)

 

 

Ingredients

Smoked Foie gras  3 slices 30 g each

Salad Bouquet 1

Honey

Granny Smith Apple

Apple mistelle

Calvados

Cream 35%

Reduce Porto

Fleur de sel

Balsamic vinagrette

Reduced balsamic

Flower

Salt

 

Peel the green apple, take out the core and cut into discs and pass them through the lemon juice to avoid them from turning brown. Pour the  honey in a frying pan to reduce. Make sure that the apple slices are dry and carefully place in the reduced honey.  Cook them, but make sure that they stay crunchy. Deglaze the pan with the calvados and apple mistelle.

 

Put a little salt in a very hot frying pan and cook the three slightly floured slices of foie gras.  They must be crusty of both sides. Deglaze with some balsamic vinegar drops, then remove the foie gras and place on a paper towel. To assemble, start by putting a slice of foie gras on the top of an of apple slice, followed by another foie gras, apple and foie gras, topping it off with a little fleur de sel. With the reduced balsamic vinegar, make the points for decoration. Mix the reduced Porto onto some firmly whipped cream and make a quenelle. Make a salad bouquet and drizzle a little balsamic vinaigrette on top. Finish with a flower for decoration.

— Patrick Turcot

Executive chef

The Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu

 

If you go:

The Charlevoix region is located 50 miles or about an hour east of Quebec City on Route 138.  To read more about the region:  www.charlevoixquebec.wordpress.com

Maison d’affinege Maurice Dufour, 1339 blvd. Monsigneur-de-Laval (Rt. 138), Baie-St-Paul.  (418) 435-5692,  www.fromagefin.com

Laiterie Charlevoix, 1167 blvd. Monsigneur-de-Laval (Rt. 138), Baie-St-Paul.  (418) 435-2184,  www.fromagescharlevoix.com

Le Pub, 2 rue Racine, Baie-St-Paul. (418) 240-2332,  www.microbrasserie.com

La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix, 813 rue St-Edouard (Rt. 381), Saint-Urbain.  (418) 639-2246,  www.lafermebasque.ca

Boulangerie La Remy, 235 Terrasse la Remy, Baie-St-Paul.  (418) 435-6579,

Le Manoir Richelieu, 181 rue Richelieu, La Malbaie. (418) 665-3703, www.fairmont.com/richelieu-charlevoix

Tourisme Charlevoix, 495 blvd. de Comporté, La Malbaie.  (418) 665-4454, www.charlevoixtourism.com

from Éco-Mobilité, 230 rue Richelieu, Pointe-au-Pic.  (418) 202-3266, www.charlevoixecomobilite.com