Friday, May 31, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Hendrick's G&T

Bloody hell it's hot out there. We are in the midst of a very sudden heatwave here in Maine. It was heavy fleece weather just a few days ago and today the thermometer is above 90. Craziness. So the A/C is on, and a cool and refreshing cocktail is called for this afternoon.

My beloved Scots are the geniuses behind Hendricks Gin. William Grant & Sons (3rd largest producer of Scotch whisky) distills this gin in small batches, using the traditional juniper but also adding in some cooling cucumber to the blend.

It's just what you want to sit back and relax with on a steaming day like today. One sip and it's easy to pretend you're standing on the wind swept moors of northern Scotland, and not on the roasting coast of Maine.

Hendricks G&T
2 oz Hendricks Gin
Pour over ice and fill glass with tonic water
Garnish with a cucumber

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pirates of the Baltic Sea

Both little C&Gs were absolutely obsessed with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series in the summer of 2011. Imagine their excitement when we told them Stockholm was home to the world's oldest wooden warship, almost fully intact and the star of it's very own museum. They bounced around like pirate Jack Sparrow on horseback and we put Scandinavia's most visited museum at the top of our agenda.

Commissioned by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the Vasa set sail on it's maiden voyage in Stockholm's harbor in 1628. It stayed afloat for a whole twenty minutes before a strong breeze caught the sails and caused the top-heavy warship to topple over into the sea. The great hope of Sweden's naval fleet in the brutal battles with Poland and Denmark was a horrible embarrassment and a great waste of money. 

The King made the classic mistake of thinking bigger was better, so he repeatedly commanded his shipbuilders to make everything bigger and to add more cannons. The builders knew it wasn't sea worthy, but in the 1600's you certainly didn't argue with a power hungry king. All those cannon balls didn't help with the ship's instability and it's no wonder the four story warship ended up in the bottom of the harbor. 

Raised from it's watery grave in 1961, the ship was in excellent condition after 333 years in the ocean. Almost all of the wood remained intact, thanks to the briny and polluted waters of the harbor. Conservators have done an outstanding job preserving the Vasa, and the museum opened to the public in 1990. 

The Vasa Museum is incredibly kid friendly, as you would expect in a museum whose star attraction is made for Hollywood. A scavenger hunt worksheet is available at the information desk, a short documentary tells the story of raising the ship up out of the sea, and tour guides will walk you through the three floors of the exhibit while sharing the Vasa's history. Both boys were mesmerized by the tales of the doomed ship, and they loved the model that showed was life was like below decks. 

We spent almost our entire day at the Vasa Museum, so I was very glad that I'd read about their excellent restaurant. We grabbed a quick bite of Swedish meatballs, pasta, and pumpernickel bread and sat outside on the patio, then headed back in for a better look around the ship. The museum is open daily, from 8:30 to 6:00 in the summer months. Admission is free for kids under 16 and 130SEK (roughly $20) for adults. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Starting in Scandinavia

Picture perfect Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark
Honestly I don't know how I've made it to 55 entries on this blog with only two of those referring to Scandinavia. It was the idea of traveling to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway that sparked our family's interest in adventure, so it's really how C&G got started.

Before summer 2011 we'd never traveled beyond North America as a family. We joined Grandma & Papa C&G on their vacation in Hawaii in May 2010 (cheers to all their Marriott points and a free place to stay) and getting there from the East Coast was no easy task. After the little C&Gs did amazing on the two day flight, we realized we could make it to Europe in half the time for probably half the money.

Little C&Gs new BFF
We had been thinking Scandinavia would be the perfect place to start, with so many beautiful, clean cities and their very family friendly way of life. In January of 2011 Scandinavian airlines advertised a huge sale on summer fares, which we took as a sign meant directly for us, so we bought four tickets and the game was on. We decided to fly into Copenhagen and out of Oslo (thankfully the same price as round trip), and figured we could train, ferry, fly, or fjord between the countries.

Flying between the three countries was cheapest, and I realized the boys wouldn't be so happy on a sixteen hour ferry ride from Copenhagen to Oslo. After about half an hour of looking at fjords, the whining and asking for iPads would probably start (from me) and it would make for a very long day. Flights on Norwegian Air between the big cities cost less than half a family Eurail Scandinavia pass, and at less than an hour of flying time worked out to be the best bargain ever. Once you get to Europe, it's very easy and inexpensive to jet your way from country to country. Why isn't it that simple in the US?

Farmers markets, Norwegian style, smoked fish & caviar
My first order of business was buying the Rick Steves' Scandinavia guide book, which I used to plot out our two weeks of travels. Googling "Scandinavia with kids" didn't turn up many useful results, so it was just me and my new best friend Rick Steves. I trusted Rick to tell me where to go, and I trusted the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians to help us out along the way. English is spoken everywhere in Scandinavia and we never had a problem communicating.

Little kids are so integrated in every day life that traveling with our kids was never a hassle in Scandinavia. Buses and trains had special spots for strollers, not that we traveled with one but it was nice to see. Kids ruled the restaurants (well behaved, of course) and nobody batted an eyelash when we wandered into the Michelin starred masterpiece restaurant of Mathias Dahlgren. We weren't at our best, having just disembarked from a hot and sweaty boat tour of the harbor, but they welcomed us and it's one of the meals the boys still rave about. Try waltzing into Per Se in NYC with your kids and see how quickly your warm welcome is turned into a frosty stare.

Except for a few small parking issues (Mr. C&G might argue not so small) and a two hour wait for dinner at a Stockholm hot spot (wait till you see the bevy of blonde beauties dining there, I took a photo of the Little C&Gs really for the girls in the background) our two weeks of travel was a huge success. I'll get right on some Scandinavian posts, in the hopes that C&G will inspire you and your little ones to explore the beautiful family friendly countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Skål!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tween Tuesday

I'm not sure how this happened, but my little baby is now a tween. Big C&G turns eleven today and I swear it was just yesterday that he plunged a chubby hand into his first birthday cake and immediately burst into tears. It was too messy and too sticky and he just wasn't having any of it. Funny how his tastes have changed (although he still doesn't like to get messy) and he's never passed up a sweet treat since. These days he's more likely to scoop all the frosting off and not bother with the cake.

By his first birthday Big C&G had already racked up some frequent flier miles. He was three months old when we swaddled him up and flew cross country to San Francisco. I wish someone had told me that tiny babies are excellent fliers because I spent weeks completely freaking out, imagining every worse case scenario, for absolutely no reason at all.

The minute we got on the plane Big C&G immediately fell asleep and we didn't hear a peep from him till the cabin doors opened on the other side of the country. It hadn't occurred to me that I'd have six hours of silence so I didn't bring a book to read and was stuck reading the SkyMall catalog cover to cover. Thankfully it was the days before internet access and satellite phones on planes, otherwise we'd be the proud owners of several fogless lighted mirrors and fake books that double as secret hiding places.

Dessert at 9,744 ft, Piz Gloria, Schilthorn Switzerland
Big C&G is now on his second passport and we're lucky that he's still an excellent flier. He always impresses us with his sense of adventure and his willingness to try something new. Our little boy is growing into an amazing young man and we feel very blessed with him in our lives.

On our vacation this summer I'm going to hand over the travel planning to him for a day or two.  He's old enough to do some research with me and I'm interested to see what kind of choices he makes. Fingers crossed we don't end up criss-crossing the globe on a Legoland World Tour.

Happy Birthday Big C&G!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Apfelsaftschorle

Little C&G is counting the hours until kickoff at 2:45. He's all geared up and ready to go. Dibs has already been called for the comfy corner spot on the couch, although I'm sure he won't remain seated for long.

Little C&G is ready to cheer on his favorite players Manuel Neuer, Arjen Robben, and Thomas Müller. He's already predicted there will be some yellow card action in what is sure to be a heated game in Wembley Stadium.

Today is all about Little C&G, so we've come up with an appropriate non-alcoholic German cocktail for him. Germans are not known as cocktail connoisseurs, their beverage of choice is predominately beer. When they're changing things up chances are they'll reach for a German produced wine, many delicious whites come from the Rhine river region. The under 14 set (you can drink beer in the company of your parents at that young age) will find plenty of fruit juices and sodas to quench their thirst in the outdoor biergartens around town.

One beverage we found on every menu in Munich was apfelsaftschorle, which the boys mastered the pronunciation of just in time for us to be heading out of town. Schorle is a type of drink made by mixing any kind of fruit juice with sparkling mineral water, and apfel is the German word for apple. They ordered it by the stein-full, although they never seemed able to finish off an entire liter full of their fizzy drinks.

To make it in the comfort of your own biergarten at home there isn't much of a recipe. Apple juice, club soda, mix and done. Although the recipe I found online takes a container of frozen apple juice concentrate and mixes it in a carafe filled with club soda. Not too difficult, and hopefully it won't stain the couch when someone jumps up to cheer Bayern Munich on to victory. Go Bayern!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Wine and Wittelsbachs, part two

St. George slays the emerald dragon
We have Albert V, Duke of Bavaria from 1550-1579 to thank for the stunning collection on display in the Treasury of the Residenz Museum in the center of Munich. Albert was a patron of the arts, and he amassed great treasures from across Europe. He commissioned the construction of the cavernous Antiquarium to house his collection of Roman statues and busts, and it stands today as the largest Renaissance hall north of the Alps.

In a brilliant legal move, the Duke stated in his will that the entire collection of Wittelsbach treasures remain together and never be sold. Over 1,000 years worth of religious artifacts, crowns, swords, jewels, and priceless metalworks form one of the most important collections in the world. A prayer book from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald (great name, right?) dating from 890 is on display. Also in the collection is the oldest surviving crown of England from 1370, known as the Palatine Crown for Queen Anne of Bohemia. The crown is an intricate and delicate work of gold covered in diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and tiny little pearls.

Just what I need for the school run
The small and intimate presentation of the stunning collection is what appealed most to the little C&Gs. I think if we were in a big museum they would have skipped from one item to the next. But they really got a chance to press their noses up to the glass (bulletproof, I'm assuming) and examine each piece up close. They certainly don't let you get that close to the crown jewels in the Tower of London.

The highlight of the collection for the boys was the statue of St. George slaying the dragon. This gold reliquary was made to hold the remains of the legendary St. George, famous for slaying a dragon and rescuing a princess in the early Middle Ages. Chances are he was a purely mythical character but I'm sure he'd be pleased to know his remains would be guarded by this stunning statue covered with more than 2,000 emeralds, rubies, and pearls. The dragon is breathtaking, covered from nose to tail in emeralds with rubies dripping from his head to symbolize where he was struck by the sword. The little C&Gs loved the story and took turns making up their own knights and dragons stories with their action figures (bought in the gift shop) at the wine bar next door.

I swear that's grape juice Big C&G has in his glass
Just out the door of the Residenz Museum and half a block to the right was the wonderful Pfalzer Residenz Weinstube. The restaurant is run by a local wine collective, so there's no beer but plenty of delicious local wines and specialty grape juices. They have tables out front and in the back is a stone courtyard that's part of the Residenz complex. Inside are vaulted ceilings, long wooden tables, and no menus in English.

The dining room was incredibly noisy which was perfect for the medieval battle going on at our table. We sampled a large number of wines (they came in small glasses, really) while the boys toasted with their grape juices and sparkling apple sodas. The charcuterie plate got the evening started and we have no idea what we ordered after that. Partly from all the wine but mostly because we couldn't understand our waiter and he couldn't understand us.

Lots of wine and not a salad
Little C&G ended up not eating his flammkuchen, which we thought was pizza-like when we saw it on a nearby table. We ordered it with cheese and "pepperoni", but the pepperoni turned out to be green peppers. Thankfully he worked his way through the giant basket of German bread and we didn't have to find a hot dog stand on the way home.

Big C&G took a guess and ordered what he thought was steak. Happily he was right, but I wasn't so lucky with the salad I thought I ordered. It came out after everyone was done and turned out to be apple pancakes with blue cheese and grapes. After several glasses of wine and not a lot of food, it was the best pancakes I've ever had.

In such a beer crazy city the Pfalzer Residenz Weinstube was a delightful find. And even better since we didn't have to venture too far from the museum that we'd spent all day in. Most important, we learned our lesson that night with our inability to decipher German menus. As soon as we got back to the hotel Mr. C&G splurged on the $4.99 German to English dictionary app, as the free one certainly wasn't going to help us out in the flammkuchen department.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wine and Wittelsbachs, part one

Bavaria's ruling family, the Wittelsbachs, called Munich home for more than four centuries. The Residenz in the middle of the city served as the political and cultural center of the Bavarian dukes and later kings from the 1500s up until 1918. Gilded, baroque, and over the top, the Residenz Museum is exactly what your kiddos picture when you mention the word palace.

The Wittelsbachs are the longest continuously ruling family in European history, although the last Bavarian King was deposed in 1918. Their former residence, the Residenz Museum was opened to the public in 1920 and houses a vast collection of portraits, sculptures, and porcelains (the family had it's own in-house porcelain works). The nearby Treasury contains hundreds of years worth of Wittelsbach family gold, silver, jewels, and crowns.

The 90 room Residenz is easy to tour around with the help of the free audio guide, about the size of a giant phone, and the boys loved following along at their own pace. I kept my Rick Steves Munich guide handy and used his room by room guide to the museum to fill in interesting details.

The Antiquarium is the oldest room in the Residenz and also the longest, it's still used today for elaborate banquets. More than 200 people can be seated in this room that stretches for more than 200 feet. The walls are lined with bucolic scenes of life around Bavaria in the 1500s and the small nooks house Roman busts, the Wittelsbach attempt to connect themselves to the ancient rulers of Rome.

Most of the artwork along the walls of the palace involve ancient members of the Wittelsbach families, and we had lots of fun making up stories about the dour faced Dukes and bewigged Kings. This was the first palace the little C&Gs have ever toured and it definitely lived up to their grand expectations.

Stay tuned for tomorrow when I'll show you the money. Diamonds, rubies, pearls, silver, gold, crowns, and all kinds of gorgeous treasures collected by Bavarian's royals for over 1,000 years. The small ten room Treasury is a wing off the main museum and was dazzling enough to keep the little C&Gs interested even after a few hours wandering the baroque palace. And of course C&G has the perfect place for wine and charcuterie within stumbling distance of all that opulence.

The Residenz Museum is open daily from 9:00am to 6:00pm from April through October and 10:00am to 5:00pm November through March. Admission for kids is free, and 11€ for adult admission to both the Residenz and the Treasury.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hotel Review: Marriott Munich

In honor of Little C&G's favorite team, FC Bayern München, I'm focusing on all things German this week. On Saturday it's an all German   showdown in the UEFA Champions League final at Wembley Stadium, the first in history. Munich's home team Bayern München defeated Barcelona to earn a spot in the final against Northern Germany's Borussia Dortmund. Little C&G has Saturday circled in red on the calendar and has already requested ahead of time that his soccer (football) jersey is clean. Hard to do since he rarely takes it off.

Our hotel for the first leg of our summer 2012 adventure was the Munich Marriott, just north of the city center and conveniently down the road from the Allianz Arena, home to FC Bayern München. Had I known ahead of time that Little C&G would turn into such a soccer nut, I would have planned accordingly, bought tickets to a game and booked a tour. Instead we watched games from the comfort of the hotels' executive lounge (free snacks, beverages, and help yourself wine bar) every night.

Our room was never this clean, so thanks
Marriott has a generous rewards program and we used a bunch of points to stay five nights in Munich for free. Located in a quiet neighborhood and just two blocks from the U-bahn (subway) it was easy to get in and out of downtown Munich. It was also nice to retreat to a lovely tree lined neighborhood after a full day of bustling about town.

Our room was a bit of a tight squeeze but we weren't there for much more than sleeping.We didn't have that extra space with the couch that shows up in the photo to the left, which we happily could have put to good use. When we needed some room to roam we headed down to the lobby or out into the neighborhood for a stroll. We arrived in Munich just as the Olympics were starting so there were televisions on and people congregating and cheering almost everywhere throughout the hotel.

The neighborhood was very residential so there wasn't a lot to do and very few restaurants, but we did find a delicious bakery between our hotel and the U-bahn. I thought it was a mirage when we got up out of the subway on arrival from the airport, and pretzels and coffee have never tasted so good. Most days we ate breakfast at the vast buffet in the dining room (included with the room) and then stayed out till after dinner.

Steakhouse 93 in the Marriott lobby
At the end of our day trip out to Legoland (trust me, I will post about it!) the four of us were completely exhausted and didn't want to venture any further than our hotel in search of dinner. We decided to try the American style steakhouse in the lobby, Grill 93, and we were pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Hotel dining isn't usually worth the calories (unless it's room service in the comfort of your bathrobe) but Mr. C&G and I enjoyed some great steaks and several glasses of very tasty local weissweins (white wines).

The little C&Gs kept busy with their Legoland purchases while we sat back and enjoyed our wine. They were so happy to see a menu in English filled with all their favorites, and even more amused that each dish had a silly cartoon name. The boys got a kick out of our waitress' strong German accent when they ordered the "Schpunge Bob" of grilled sausages and french fries. The perfect ending to our long day was heading over to the lounge after dinner to watch Bayern München defeat Dortmund, and we all have our fingers crossed they'll do it again on Saturday!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Maine Monday: Mocktails du jour

David's Opus Ten is a unique and intimate dinner experience in downtown Portland. And definitely not a bring your kids to dinner kind of place, no matter how well behaved they are or how fancy their collared shirt. Chef David Turin opened Opus Ten in the back of his already very successful David's on Monument Square, focusing on flavor, beautiful presentation, and regional cuisine.

It's a nine course (seven during the week) prix fixe menu of whatever the talented chef puts together from the day's freshest ingredients. The cozy dining room is tucked away in the back of David's, and with only 18 seats and a small dedicated kitchen, you feel like you've been invited to the most elegant dinner party.

We spent a lovely evening at David's Opus Ten recently, and the food was beyond amazing. Each course was so different from the last and small in size but huge in flavor. Quail's egg ravioli, presented in a small dish while the chef comes out from the kitchen to pour the steaming butter and egg emulsion over the ravioli, completing the cooking process right in front of you. Butter poached lobster (and I'm not a fan of lobster) sitting on top of a crispy tiny risotto cake, and seven more delicious dishes rounded out our three and a half hour dining experience.

Blueberry Mint "soda"
But the most surprising part of the night was that I didn't have to bow out of the beverage pairings of the evening. I offered to be the designated driver, which next time I'll need to remember to do only after I've seen the wine list. Several of my favorites were on the list, but it can't always be cocktails & Chassagne-Montrachets.

The brilliant chefs at Opus Ten have thought ahead and prepared very interesting non-alcoholic mocktails to go with each course. The drinks were all delicious, and I didn't have to miss out on the pleasure of having something new and colorful placed in front of me before every new dish. It was certainly a lot more fun than sitting there sipping my Pellegrino while everyone at the table swirls and sniffs their way through the wine pairings.

All my drinks were so bubbly and fun (except for the Smokey Apple, that got passed over to the peaty Scotch loving Mr. C&G) that I never missed the alcohol. The Verde Mary was delicious and if I thought we'd have even a chance of recreating it at home I'd get my live-in bartender right on it. The rest of the mocktails look pretty easy to turn into cocktails, and you can be sure I'll put my best researchers right on it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Parisian Cocktail 2.0

We have some houseguests this weekend, Ammah C&G (my Mom) and her BFF are coming to visit. For some strange reason they're expecting a vast array of cocktails when they arrive. I can't imagine why!

I thought this would be the perfect welcome drink to meet them at the door with. Light, fruity, and just a wee bit of tartness. Just like my Mom. . .

Parisian Cosmo
1 1/2 oz Chambord vodka
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1/2 oz cranberry juice
1/4 oz fresh lime juice
Combine all ingredients in a martini shaker filled with ice
Shake it up and strain into a martini glass

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Back to the Books

It's very unusual for me to plan out our restaurants so far in advance of our summer travels. You never know where your day will take you or what your gang will be in the mood for.

In the past I've done some research ahead of time, copied all the details to an email (which drives Mr. C&G nuts, he'd prefer it as notes on the iPhone) to print out and carry with me. Then as we're wandering I can check to see what's recommended nearby. When we leave that particular city, my notes go in the garbage (recycling of course) and I no longer need to tote the information around.

This plan of attack won't work for us on our adventures this summer. One of our stops is a major bustling city, and I don't want to be stuck with hungry munchkins and a two hour wait for tables. I also don't want to waste our travel budget on meals that aren't worth it, or restaurants that are miserable tourist traps. Recipe for disaster.

So I've been spending the past few days checking into restaurant options and making reservations online (thank goodness for the internet). I've been combing my usual sources and searching for restaurants that get mentioned more than once in a variety of places. I grabbed the Where Chef's Eat book off the library shelf the other day and so far 4 of my choices show up in there. That's a good sign!

Where Chef's Eat highlights restaurants from around the world (and close to home), and while the descriptions aren't all that informative at least you have the name and location for starting a google search. It's also a nice mix of high and low end recommendations. Noma in Copenhagen (named best restaurant in the world in years past) is just a few paragraphs away from Ahaaa, a great Copenhagen falafel joint.

Of course the first page I turned to when I got home was the Portland, Maine section. Otto's, Boda, and Bresca are all favorites so I knew this would be a good guide. If the travel books (or websites) you're using list the Hard Rock Café or Applebee's, then you know it's not where you want to get your recommendations from. But chef's know their food, and they're not ones to be wasting their hard earned dough on meals that aren't worth every penny, kroner, euro, or pound.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Meals That Changed It All

Big C&G used to be a picky eater, which as you can imagine is not a good personality trait in a world traveler. The four major food groups of hot dogs, pizza, mac & cheese, and french fries don't really exist outside the borders of the US.

After booking our tickets to Scandinavia for the summer of 2011, I immediately had a panic attack over what on earth would we feed our kids on our two week adventure. Little Scandinavian children always look like the picture perfect visions of health, with their ruddy cheeks, bright eyes, and luminous skin. No doubt from their abundant diet of fresh from the arctic ocean seafood and antioxidant rich fruits like lingonberries. None of which would fly with our little C&Gs. Oddly, smoked salmon is a favorite of both boys, but any other kind of fish will not pass their lips voluntarily. Thank goodness for Mexico.

In March of 2011 were on our annual vacation in Mexico with Ammah C&G (my Mom) and BBC&G (my amazing Grandmother) when Big C&G decided to venture out of his very narrow comfort zone. Maybe he was getting tired of cheese quesadillas, or it could have been the mariachi band and the sombrero. Big C&G leaned over to Ammah C&G and asked to try some steak off her fajita plate. We were all shocked, but probably not as shocked as he was when he discovered he liked it. It was as if he realized what he'd been missing for the past eight years of his life, and he's been an adventurous eater ever since. Hard to believe my little Big C&G has branched out to octopus, prosciutto, and caesar salad.

Fast forward to our summer in Scandinavia, and the meal that Big C&G still talks about. We found the small bistro P.A. & Co tucked away on a hidden street in the Gamla Stan neighborhood of Stockholm, far from the usual tourist crowds. We were the only non-Swedes in the restaurant, with the exception of a German couple trying to order in their limited English.

Menus weren't in available in English, and Big C&G decided he liked the sound of the dish "Skomakarlåda". We were all shocked, but he was game to try something unknown. And you can tell from the smile on his face he absolutely loved it. Steak, smothered in leeks and bacon, what's not to love! Mr. C&G looks at the ready with his fork, but I'm pretty sure he barely got a bite before Big C&G gobbled the whole thing up.

I think when you take your kids out of their comfort zone and there are limited choices, they will truly surprise you. It make take a few times of trying, and Stockholm was the second city on our vacation, but Big C&G has been much more open minded ever since. At some point they realize they need to be more flexible, and nowhere is that more apparent than when they're confronted with a menu full of strange things and a rumbling tummy. Big C&G is happy to try anything you put in front of him and I no longer worry about finding something he'll eat on a foreign menu.

We've still got a bit of a challenge with our Italian child, Little C&G. He rarely ventures beyond pasta, but he's now the same age Big C&G was when he had his food epiphany. With Italy not on our agenda anytime soon, we have big hopes for him branching out this summer. No pressure little one. . .

Monday, May 13, 2013

Maine Monday: Comics Arts Festival

Could there be a more beautiful location for a comic arts festival? I don't think so. The Ocean Gateway Terminal on the Portland waterfront will be the site of the Maine Comics Arts Festival this Sunday, May 19th from 10:00am to 5:00pm. Artists come from all over to show off their talents  and sell their works, all against a beautiful ocean backdrop. It's definitely a kid friendly event (kids are free, adults are $5) where authors set up tables around the scenic terminal ready to talk about and sign their books.

Portland resident Lincoln Peirce of Big Nate fame has been there the last few years and Big C&G is a huge fan of his. Last year he got one of his books autographed and asked Mr. Peirce some questions about being a cartoonist. Little C&G is a fan of cartoonist Dan Moynihan and we have several custom drawn monsters, made on the spot with a little input from Little C&G. The Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye books series is a favorite of Little C&G (and of the elementary school librarian) and author Colleen A.F. Venable has been there in years past to sign and talk about her books. The stories are very cute and perfect for the under 8 set. Of course there are some comics that aren't exactly PG13, but they're very good about keeping them separate from the youngsters.

When you're done with all the zombies, monsters, super heros, and adorably (and some not so adorably) drawn characters, step outside for a stroll along the waterfront. The great expanse of green lawn next to the terminal is the perfect space to let the kiddos run around. 

If your crew is getting hungry, Flatbread pizza is just a short walk into town. For an appropriately cartoonish end to your adventures, swing into Casco Bay Variety a few doors down from Flatbread on Commercial Street. Your kiddos can order up a few scoops of ice cream complete with edible googly eyes and giant smiles. Just be sure not to get any sprinkles on their new comic books!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Kir Royale

This is one of my favorite cocktails. I love anything bubbly, with a hint of pink, and it couldn't be any easier to make. Pop open a bottle of your favorite champagne, add a few drops of Chambord till you reach the desired pinkness, and float a few raspberries on top. It's the perfect festive beverage for celebrating Mother's Day.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend and a very happy Mother's Day! Cheers!

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Iceman Cometh, part two

Tucked into the mountains of the South Tyrol region just over the Austrian border and in the northern most point of Italy, Bolzano (as it's known in Italian, Bozen in German) is a little gem of a bilingual city. German is the dominant language in this Italian town, so you'll see pretzels and strudel on the menu alongside pasta and gelato.

We used Bolzano as a stop on our way from Munich to Venice and it's high on my list of cities to return to. It's also high on the list for many Italians, as Bolzano regularly shows up on a list of top cities Italians would like to live in, via a yearly reader survey in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

Our main focus in the 24 hours we had in Bolzano was visiting the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology and the world famous 5,000 year old Ötzi the iceman. Parks, castles, cable cars, and a zoo could have kept us occupied for another few days. The covered arcaded shopping areas (think luxury shops, not tacky tourist "arcades") would be a lovely way to pass an afternoon while you send the rest of your family off to a reconstructed Copper Age (3,500BC) village in the ArcheoParc a short drive away.

I emailed several hotels listed in my DK Family Guide to Italy to see what family accommodations were available. The historic Stadt Hotel Citta (Stadt is city in German, Citta is city in Italian) was the winner and we loved their idea of a family room. Two bedrooms, one with triple twin beds, a good sized bathroom, a small balcony, and an entryway made it feel like a small apartment. Breakfast in the morning was an amazing assortment of charcuterie, cheeses, yogurts, granolas, fruits, and breads and cakes from their in house bakery.

The hotel sits on the corner of a beautiful town square, Piazza Walther/Waltherplatz. Trendy shops and restaurants line the bustling square and there's lots of activity to keep the kiddos occupied. Families stroll through with their kiddos on bikes or kicking a soccer ball, there are statues and benches for climbing, and it's a great place to let them run around. While you sit at a café table with a glass of gewürztraminer, of course. We ventured beyond Piazza Walther for dinner, making an adventure out of exploring the narrow and twisty streets around town.

Both of my guidebooks recommended the popular pub Hopfen & Company just a short walk away from the square. With an outdoor garden and a tower of pretzels on the bar, this 800 year old building now houses a restaurant and brewery making the local Bozner Bier. Dumplings and schnitzels are the specialties on the menu but the little C&Gs decided they had finally arrived in Italy so their only options was to go with pasta. After they had the pretzels.

In the morning we filled up at the delicious breakfast buffet, left our bags at the front desk, and made our way to the museum. Passing by the charming little shops I remembered I was in search of sunscreen, but figured it could wait till after the museum. I completely forgot we were now on Italian time, and all the shops close down for an hour or two to enjoy their leisurely lunch. Sunscreen had to wait till our next stop.

The sunny (but shaded thanks to giant umbrellas) Piazza Walther was our destination for lunch. All of the restaurants looked equally good, so we picked one with an open table overlooking the square. They also had a gelato stand, which possibly could have swayed our choice. Little C&G has never looked happier, sitting outdoors, in Italy, with a big bowl of spaghetti alla pesto. Topped off with a big cup of straciatella and we were ready to hit the road to Venice.

My usual Friday cocktail du jour post will be coming to you tomorrow, just in time for Mother's Day. Mr. C&G, the resident bartender, was out of town on business all week and I'm certainly not about to mix something up for myself. Who wants to drink alone? And most important, who wants to make their own drink? Certainly not Mrs. C&G!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Iceman Cometh, part one

Our first stop in Italy, Bolzano
What do Brad Pitt and the charming Alpine town of Bolzano, Italy have in common? The 5,000 year old well preserved ice man known as Ötzi. Brad has the outline of our prehistoric ancestor tattooed on his arm, and Bolzano is where you can see him (Ötzi, not Brad) up close and personal. Enclosed in a highly secured and sophisticated refrigerated room at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, of course.

When plotting our adventures last summer in Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland, it was a challenge to figure out which interesting towns we should use as stopovers getting from Munich to Venice. Thanks to the DK Family Guide to Italy book, I found the German/Italian town of Bozen/Bolzano just over the border of Austria and home to Europe's oldest naturally preserved mummy. A perfect stop for the wannabe Indiana Jones C&Gs.

Ötzi was discovered frozen in glacial ice high in the mountains bordering Italy and Austria in 1991. Originally thought to be a lost hiker, imagine the scientists surprise when they realized his prehistoric clothing and gear aged him by a few thousand years. The frozen conditions kept him so well preserved for the past 5,000 years that scientists have been able to find out how he lived, what he looked like, what he ate, and how he died. An x-ray revealed a broken arrow embedded in his shoulder, turning Ötzi's story into an ancient murder mystery. We shared his interesting story with the boys before we left and they couldn't wait to check out a real live (not really) mummy.

Big Ötzi
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is home to Ötzi, the well preserved contents of his backpack, and all the research carried out over the past 20 plus years. You'll see his animal skin clothing, the weapons he carried (huge hit with the little C&Gs), bows and arrows, and shoes that somehow carried him over the ice and snow of the Alps. We were all fascinated by what this 5 foot 3 inch tattooed preserved man could tell us about our history, our genealogy, and about life in ancient times. Everything was displayed in German, Italian, and English and at the end of the exhibits you queue up to take a peek through a glass window into Ötzi's cold but cozy cell. He is kind of gross looking, but after learning so much about his journey to Bolzano it's easy to overlook the ick factor of his dried up shriveled skin and be amazed at 5,000 years of human history in front of you.

After a quick run through the gift shop (thankfully no mummies came home with us) the boys headed downstairs to the kids room. The family room is only open during the summer months and offers a great space for them to play, color and dress up. The little C&Gs loved dressing up like Ötzi and I'm sure if it wasn't so hot outside they would have begged to take the giant hats with them. The room came in handy at the end of our tour of the museum so the kiddos could get some energy out after all that focused attention on our ice man friend.

Little Ötzi
We were so sad to be only spending one night in the South Tyrol/Alto Adige region of Italy. Especially since we are huge fans of the wines produced nearby. I would love to return, and we never would have found this gem without my trusty DK guide book. Bolzano was a very charming Italian town with a German accent (Bolzano in Italian, Bozen in German) full of family friendly places to eat and drink outdoors. I'll recommend a few, along with a review of our amazing hotel in my next post.

The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00am to 6:00pm. During July, August and December it's also open on Mondays. Entry for a family of four is €18, roughly $22US. There has been a lot about Ötzi in the news recently and PBS/NOVA has a wonderful documentary on the research scientists have been doing with our preserved ancestor. If you're thinking about a visit to Bolzano, it's a definite must watch with the kids.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Maine Monday: Sweets and Treats

Yesterday was a holiday of sorts. And you know how our friends at Gelato Fiasco love to make flavors around the holidays. Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Mexico as El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla) and recognizes the Mexican army's victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. In Portland, Maine it's an excuse to dump a few bottles of Corona into the gelato machine.

Corona and lime, chocolate mole, and guacamole were all special Mexican themed flavors of the day. Yes, guacamole gelato. And as you can imagine it wasn't very good. Even the color was unappetizing, it's the green glob in the cup above. An epic fail, as Little C&G would say, but a fun epic fail.

Next weekend is all about sweets, treats, and fun in Portland. It's the return of Sweet Weekend in the Old Port, a fun adventure around town that requires you to stop into some of your favorite bakeries, candy stores, and frozen treat shops for trivia, contests, and of course free samples. You rack up stamps in a "passport" at each stop by answering some questions, telling a joke, or making up a new flavor (gotta work for your treats!). Turn in your completed passport for a special rewards card to use through the summer.

We had such a fun time wandering the Old Port last year collecting stamps and sampling some goodies. Purchases aren't required to get your stamps but we couldn't resist putting together our own gift boxes at Dean's Sweets. Their amazing hand-dipped truffles are one of my favorite indulgences. How convenient that the Sweet Weekend also coincides with Mother's Day. Hmmm. . . Better start dropping some hints.

You can check out the fine print here and see the list of ten participating shops in the Old Port. Pick up your passports at any of the listed shops starting today, and passport stamping starts on Friday, May 11th. Enjoy your sweet adventures across downtown Portland!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Loch Lomond

Great King Street was rated best "Blended Whisky of the Year" for 2012 by Whisky Advocate magazine. Not too bad for the ex-pat American and former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser. He started Compass Box Whisky Company in his London kitchen in 2000, and he's been blending some of the best Scottish single malts together ever since. Since then he's moved up north, and Great King Street is named for the Edinburgh address that now houses the Compass Box HQ.

We've got a few of his creations on the bar shelves, nestled in alongside Mr. C&Gs vast single malt collection. One elusive blend that Mr. C&G finally tracked down on our recent vacation in NYC is the Great King Street New York Blend. Released in August 2012 with a limited run of only 1,840 bottles, it quickly sold out on the East Coast and has been very hard to find. Thanks to Park Avenue Liquors he's added two New York Blends to his stock and we can call off the search parties.

The Loch Lomond is a interesting twist on a Rusty Nail. If you're not a Scotch fan, give this one a try. The Drambuie adds a bit of sweetness and cuts down on the biting acquired taste associated with the usquebaugh (water of life in Gaelic).

Slàinte mhath!

Loch Lomond
2 oz Scotch whisky
1/2 oz Drambuie
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
1 twist of lemon peel
In a mixing glass half-filled with ice cubes, combine the Scotch, Drambuie, and vermouth
Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass
Garnish with a twist of lemon peel

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mario, Math & Martinis in Manhattan, part two

After a quick stop at the gelato and espresso counters at Eataly we were ready to walk across Madison Square Park to the newly opened Museum of Mathematics. Created by a hedge fund mathematician turned millionaire, the museum is a giant playground where your kids can play and explore, completely oblivious (or not, up to you) about the math going on around them.

The museum opened in mid-December and on our April visit there were a few exhibits still being worked on. The volunteers were super helpful explaining some of the algebraic concepts to the little C&Gs but mostly they just had fun figuring things out.

The first floor has the tricycles where you pedal the square wheels over the bumpy circular track. I couldn't explain how it works, but it does, and the volunteer would be happy to explain it in very simple terms to your youngsters. We also went for a quick "sail" in the rowboat as it glided along on top of acorn shaped balls. We didn't feel a single bump as we pulled ourselves along, despite the variety of smooth and hard edges on the acorns.

The building toys "Zome Tools" were a big hit and we spent a long time constructing dodecahedrons, DNA, and a ferris wheel. This scientific version of classic Tinkertoys, Zoom Tools were easy to manipulate and turn into all kinds of shapes, even if all I could manage was a large box. We totally lucked out when a hovering Australian tourist turned out to be a vacationing high school physics teacher. He talked to Big C&G about the soccer ball he was making and added a whole bunch of new words to his (and my) vocabulary. 

Downstairs at "MoMath" is a giant digital floor with colored lights that change as the kiddos run and jump around it, showing the shortest distance between each person as they move. The "Human Tree" digital screen turns your one child into a multi-child branched tree, complete with leaves growing out of their hands. The boys spent another good half hour at the "Tesselation Station" using interlocking monkeys, rabbits, and other shapes to cover the wall with colorful patterns.

At the "Enigma Café" in the center of the lower level there are tables set up with games and brain teasers for you to try. One table had a Rubik's cube, and if you're stumped the volunteer will solve it for you in little more than a minute. We had fun trying out all the games we usually see in the brainy section of our toy store. Now if they just served cocktails tableside . . .

We were all pleasantly surprised at how much fun the Museum of Mathematics was. We must have spent almost 3 hours there, and there were plenty of exhibits that we pulled the boys away from after about half an hour. It was mid-week (thankfully not during NYC school vacation) and we had the place mostly to ourselves. I'm sure the boys missed a lot of the abstract concepts but the important thing was they had a lot of fun and some of the ideas will surely stick with them.

After all that "learning" we were ready to meet up with the C&G Grandparents for some much needed cocktails. Up Madison Avenue on our way to Grand Central Station we stopped in at the Carlton Hotel. The chic art deco hotel has a lovely lobby bar, complete with comfy leather couches and a very knowledgable bartender. He didn't have a cocktail menu (he said he was working on a new one) but he had some good suggestions for Mr. C&G and the Grandparents. I went with my Italian themed Aperol Spritz, just the keep the Eataly vibe going.

I've found that hotel bars can be very accommodating when it comes to cocktail hour with your kids. At 4:00 the bar was pretty empty so the little C&Gs had the run of the place, exploring dark corners of this classic old hotel that dates back over 100 years. The little C&Gs were happy to wrap up their big day in the city with a few Shirley Temples and some bowls of snacks.

The Museum of Mathematics is on the north side of Madison Square Park (great playground and a Shake Shack) at 11 East 26th Street. They're open daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm, tickets are $15/adults and $9/children and you save a little money if you buy them online on their website.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mario, Math & Martinis in Manhattan, part one

Square wheels on a round track, Museum of Mathematics
Imagine the enthusiasm from the little C&Gs when we told them we were going to the Math Museum. Not so much, right? Good thing we promised them lunch (and gelato) at Eataly beforehand.

Opened in August 2010 by Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe Bastianich, Eataly is a giant emporium of all things Italian. Groceries, a full butcher counter, wine, books, a bakery, pastries, espresso, cheeses, gelato, chocolates, oils, Italian sodas (a Big C&G fav), everything either house made or imported direct from Italy. There are countless restaurants, and a few in true Italian style where you order small plates "cicchetti" and eat standing at a tall table. Manzo is the only one you can make a reservation at (more formal and meat centric), but chances are your troops will be making a beeline for the brick oven pizzas and homemade pastas at La Pizza & Pasta at the back of the market.

If at all possible, try to get to Eataly for lunch by 11:30. Grandma & Papa C&G were joining us (they wouldn't miss a meal and cocktails in the city!) and our group of six got seated right away. But the closer it got to noon, the longer the line became for tables.

Around 12:15 I heard a waiter tell someone it was an hour an a half wait already, and this was on a random Thursday in April. On the plus side they take your cell phone number and they'll call you when your table is ready. Be aware they won't seat you if everybody isn't all together, so don't let your party go wandering too far through the market while you get a table. We had to point out the little C&Gs in the nearby pasta aisle before she'd seat us.

Once we were all settled in with our various glasses of wine (when in Italy) and Italian sodas, we ordered our food and then let the little C&Gs loose again in the pasta aisles. The variety of shapes and sizes were like nothing we've ever seen and I gave the boys the herculean task of picking out one bag each to bring home. Knowing I'd be carrying them I ruled out the super long ones Big C&G kept bringing back to the table.

It goes without saying that the food was incredible. Fresh, flavorful, and good enough to make you think you'd landed in the middle of Italy. It was so good that I went back the next day while running errands in the city, grabbed a seat at the counter and had a delicious lunch of ravioli and a glass of rosé. By myself. It was lovely! After lunch we wandered through the market, stopping to watch the mozzarella balls taking form in the cheese department, and to get on line to purchase our goodies.

On our way out the door we had to stop for a quick sugar and caffeine boost at the gelato and espresso counters. It was a little nutty at the gelato counter so we didn't get to try any flavors but the little C&Gs had their usual Italian favorites, straciatella and Sicilian pistachio. After re-fueling we were all set to head across Madison Square Park to explore the new Museum of Mathematics. Check in tomorrow for my review of this suprisingly fun museum. And where to get martinis after you're done with all that learning!

Eataly is on 5th Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets. It's open daily from 10:00am to 11:00pm and keep in mind it gets super crowded around mealtimes and at holidays.