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Tour de Doldrums

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“Alas, you know, ’tis far from hence to France…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry VI, Part III, IV, i)

I haven’t felt like writing anything lately.  Every year around this time I, along with countless others around the world, enter a real phase of melancholy brought on by le fin of the Tour de France.  For 23 days each July, cycling fans are glued to all types of media to garner every possible detail about the 22 teams racing around France.  We watch 198 professional riders roll off the start line on Day 1, perched on the edges of our seats and waiting for the inevitable stories of human drama that will unfold over the next three weeks.  We count down each kilometer as they make their way on winding French roads through unimaginable and literal mountainous obstacles. We hold our breath with every crash, suffer through unending commercials from revenue-hungry networks, and cheer on our fan favorites as they turn themselves inside out for historical glory.

And then all of a sudden we blink and we’re watching the weary and wounded roll into Paris three weeks later, on the last day of the race.  The contingent is usually around 160 riders by that time, depending on the number and severity of the crashes, the amount of sidelining sickness within the peloton, and the number of stupid mistakes yet made by some (yes there are still, incredibly, unbelievably, riders who still get thrown out for doping in this day and age [thankfully it was only one guy this year], but this year’s “DUH” award goes to the rookie rider who though it would be ok to hitch a short ride in a team car in order to get a flat tire fixed.  Jumped in the backseat right in front of the race referee…they should’ve given him a bobble head trophy which continually shakes its head in disbelief.)

map_route

For me, my typical Tour day here at home would involve getting up early to catch the live broadcast each morning (both on TV and via online links to European stations), which would begin anywhere between 5:00-7:00 AM and would usually last around 4 hours.  (I always feel bad for the Australia fans during the Tour, coverage for them is in the middle of the night, from about 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM.)  Then there was an evening recap broadcast from 7:00-10:00 each night but I would usually only watch the last hour or so of that one to catch any new interviews or analysis.  (I would walk 3.5 miles on the treadmill each day while watching the morning live race so that I wouldn’t feel quite so couch potato-ish.) 

During the in-between hours, I would catch up on Twitter for race and rider commentary, team videos, and news stories, which probably took another 2-3 hours each day.  Then there were online podcasts to listen to from journalists at the Tour, another hour or so daily.  (The Tour is the most reported-on sporting event in the world each year, so there is a copious amount of information available each day.)  I was on vacation from work this entire time, so the Tour became my stand-in occupation.  Would that I could only be paid for the vast amount of Tour de France knowledge absorbed by my brain during the month of July…I’d be a rich woman.

Signs seen in Leeds storefronts for the 2014 TdF,

Signs seen in Leeds storefronts for the 2014 TdF, “Yellow is the New Black; Proud Supporters of the World’s Greatest Cycle Race.”

A supporting storefront in Harrogate, Stage 1 of 2014 TdF.

A supporting storefront in Harrogate, Stage 1 of 2014 TdF.

I can’t really explain my obsession (although I did try in this past post).  It’s tough to be a cycling fan after the revealing history of the past several years.  Part of it comes from the two Tours I’ve had the privilege of seeing in person – in France 2010 (in the Alps) and in England in 2014 (for the Grand Depart).  Once you’ve felt the electric current of the race up close and personal, once you’ve experienced the biggest sporting event in the world in person, you watch with a certain loyalty and nostalgia of one who remembers the awe.  It does take a lot of loyal fan commitment to stick with the race through three entire weeks.  But when you really take time to learn the race and see what it takes for one man, let alone 160 of them, to finish this massive accomplishment, often limping through the final stages with broken ribs and bandaged limbs but surviving on hope of riding into Paris on that last day – well, it just kind of hooks you I guess.  

Mark Cavendish before the Grand Depart on Stage 1 in Leeds, 2014 TdF.

Mark Cavendish before the Grand Depart on Stage 1 in Leeds, 2014 TdF.

Press Commentary boxes on the finish line in Harrogate for Stage 1, 2014 TdF.

Press Commentary boxes on the finish line in Harrogate for Stage 1, 2014 TdF.

And after that last Sunday, when the final rider has rolled across the finish line on the famous Champs-Élysées and the volume of Twitter chat takes a sudden plunge a few hours later, fans are left to face the following days in an empty vacuum.  The romanticism of the race has ended for another year.  We wonder what to do with empty hours that used to be filled with fantastical images of French scenery (we miss you, polka-dot cows).  We manage a small smile in wistful remembrance when overplayed commercials we used to hate now populate other programs.  We flip the calendar to August and hobble back into work (a few pounds heavier for all the croissants we’ve consumed), wondering which races the riders will do next (and how can we secretly watch them while at the office).

But mostly, we just start counting down to next July.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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Tour de France 2015 Croissant Comparison

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“This is the excellent foppery of the world…” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

The 2015 Tour de France is just over one-third of the way through its 23-day jaunt around the French countryside, having started on July 4th in the neighboring Netherlands and slated for its traditional finish in Paris on July 26th.  One cannot profess to be a serious Tour de France fan without consuming at least a few handfuls of croissants (and/or baguettes) during those three weeks, and so, as a pure service to fellow French pastry fans (of course, there was no personal gain in this for me whatsoever, ahem) I have conducted a thorough comparison of some of the rumored-best croissants in the Austin area.

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d'Huez).

Stopping for a bite to eat on my trip to the Tour in 2010 (this was near Alpe d’Huez).

I did some of my own croissant research ahead of time to find out the highest rated and most popular bakeries in the area to help me decide where to go.  I decided to compare both plain butter croissants as well as chocolate croissants from each source, because, well, they’re both very delicious options.  (In French we say “pain au chocolate” instead of chocolate croissant, and it’s important to know this doesn’t mean it’s made from chocolate dough, but rather there is supposed to be a bit of chocolate piped into the middle of regular pastry dough.)  I also did limit myself geographically to central and north Austin (to save on gas $$$), and I put an upper spending limit on what I’d buy: no more than $3 per croissant (because anything more than that is just crazy talk).

The reviews are also listed in the order in which I purchased and tried them, not necessarily in ranked order.  Croissants were sampled from:

  1. Upper Crust Bakery
  2. La Madeleine Country French Cafe
  3. San Francisco Bakery & Cafe
  4. Quack’s 43rd St Bakery
  5. Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

You now have two more weeks of the Tour to take full advantage of this very important information, so allons-y, read it and eat:

1)  Upper Crust Bakery (4508 Burnet Road, Austin 78756; cocktail/small size Plain Butter Croissant $1.45, cocktail/small size Chocolate Croissant $1.90)

Upper Crust Bakery & Cafe

Upper Crust Bakery

I’d heard about Upper Crust for quite a while now but for some reason I’d never been there since moving to Austin.  It’s both a large full bakery and a cafe with quite a bit of seating for those wishing to dine in.  When I arrived around noon, they were already sold out of their regular-size croissants so I had to settle for their “cocktail” size options instead, which was fine because they were still a decent size and less than $2.00 each.

The plain croissant had nice layers inside but no flakiness of the crust (which I consider essential to a croissant), the bottom was nicely browned but not too much, I could taste the butter (and visible yellow egg layer) inside, and it had very nice “pull-apart” action from the ends with a decent chewiness.  I thought it was good but not great.  The chocolate croissant had a cinnamon-sugar topping which I didn’t care for at all (it made it too sweet in addition to the chocolate), and a decent amount of chocolate inside that was not overly sweet (which is good).  However it had a soft donut-y cake-y type texture instead of typical croissant layers; for that reason and because of the topping, it was my least favorite of the chocolate croissants in this review.

2)  La Madeleine Country French Cafe (9828 Great Hills Tr, Austin 78759; Plain Butter Croissant $1.89, Chocolate Croissant $2.79)

La Madeleine

La Madeleine

La Madeleine is a chain-restaurant mostly in the south and southwestern US that also has within each location its own small bakery, focusing on French-themed pastries.  The butter croissant was a great size for the cost and had a very buttery taste indeed; the color on the outside was a little too brown in my opinion, but it had good pull-apart action, a very good chewiness on the inside, and its taste overall was very good.  My main issue with this croissant was that it had too much space/air inside of it and not enough substance (see picture below).

The chocolate croissant had a really nice flakiness on the crust and decent layers inside, and its butter flavor was good and not too strong.  The chocolate was a nice dark-tasting chocolate but unfortunately there was just hardly any of it – as you can see from the picture below, the chocolate “tunnels” inside were near-empty; my other issue with this one is that they gave me an extremely small size croissant from the bakery rack, which was probably half the size of the ones in the display case – I had to hand it back and ask for a regular-sized one instead of a mini-one.  The baker seemed miffed at this and said “well they all proof to different sizes.”  Ok then, if you’re going to give me a mini-one, charge me for a mini-one ($.99); if you’re going to charge me nearly three times the cost of a mini-one, then give me a decent-sized croissant.  Thank you.

La Madeleine - near empty chocolate "tube"

La Madeleine – near empty chocolate “tube”


La Madeleine - big empty space inside butter croissant

La Madeleine – big empty space inside butter croissant

3)  San Francisco Bakery & Cafe (2900 W. Anderson Ln, Austin 78757; Plain Butter Croissant $2.09, Chocolate Croissant $2.39)

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

San Francisco Bakery & Cafe

I’ve been to San Francisco before for lunch with a friend but hadn’t tried its pastries before.  They have a small bakery case up front by the register but the place is mostly a cafe.  I thought their butter croissant had a great butter taste and smell, excellent dough-y layers and chewiness, and great flakiness of crust.  It was a good size, not too large or too small, and although the bottom of it was a little too browned, in my opinion this was the best of the bunch that I reviewed.

Unfortunately the chocolate croissant was not the best of the bunch, mostly due to the overly sweet and too-rich chocolate inside – there was a decent amount of chocolate but it had way too high of a sugar content for my taste.  The crust was also too dark and the croissant part itself tasted a little bland; however there were good layers inside, good crust flakiness outside, and it wasn’t at all cake-y.  My biggest issue at San Fran was the prices – for the size of the croissants, I thought they were pretty expensive.  Many of the chocolate croissants in the display case were literally half the size as some of the others, yet they were charging the same price for all of them.  Ask for a larger-sized one and they’ll give it to you.

4) Quack’s 43rd St Bakery (411 E. 43rd St, Austin 78751; Plain Butter Croissant $2.25, Chocolate Croissant $2.99)

Quack's Bakery & Cafe's HUGE croissants

Quack’s HUGE croissants

I’d never even heard of Quack’s before I did the research for this post, but I’m glad I know about them now.  They had a LOT of fantastic-looking baked goods in their multiple display cases, and when I saw the croissants I had to ask them “are those the giant sizes, do you have any regular or mini-sized ones?”  (They don’t.)  Their croissants are HUGE, which is good because they’re also expensive, but really it’s like you’re getting two croissants in one so it’s not so bad.  Their plain butter croissant had amazing flaky crust layers outside and a good color, while the inside was very airy (almost too much so); it had a good chewiness but there was a lack of a real buttery taste inside.  It was very good but not the best I’d had.

Airy layers of Quack's butter croissant

Airy layers of Quack’s butter croissant


Impressive flaky layers of Quack's chocolate croissant

Impressive flaky crust layers

However the chocolate croissant – oh my WOW.  The best layered croissant by far that I sampled (see picture below), both outside and inside.  Excellent layers.  The croissant was a bit flat and not raised like some of the others, but I’m assuming that’s because all the butter in those layers weighed it down a bit.  This croissant was also humongous, way larger than any of the other chocolate ones I tried, but unfortunately its chocolate tunnels were tiny in proportion to its size and there was a minimal amount of chocolate inside.  The chocolate that was there though tasted high quality, dark-chocolatey and not overly sweet.  The non-chocolate part of the croissant tasted just ok, but it was really the layers that made this one shine.

The unending layers of Quack's chocolate croissant.

The unending layers of Quack’s chocolate croissant.

5) Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery (6808 N. Lamar, Austin 78752; Plain Butter Croissant $2.00, Chocolate Croissant $2.00)

I’d also never heard of Tous Les Jours before this project.  They’re a Korean bakery that also makes French and European pastries and apparently it’s a chain with 30 US locations; the atmosphere inside the Austin location is nice and they have trays and trays of breads and pastries laid out in the non-cafe area; you’re supposed to grab a tray and some tongs, pick your pastries, and then the cashier goes through this elaborate ritual of putting each pastry in its own swanky little plastic bag and sealing it with a gold twisty tie.  I’m not a fan of breads and pastries being out in the open air, where just anyone (most of the trays are right at kid eye-level) can put their germy hands and fingers on them if they want or flies with poopy feet can land on them if they make it in through a door.  I guess I like it better when they’re in pastry cases or behind the register where the baker can hand you your baguette if you will.

touslesjours1

Tous Les Jours Authentic Bakery

My first impression of the butter croissant selection was that most of them were pretty small for the $2.00 price.  On the other hand, I thought that the same price of $2.00 that they were charging for the pain au chocolate was reasonable.  They did also have teeny-tiny mini-versions of each of these too, literally maybe two bites max, for $1.00 each.  (They were the smallest chocolate croissants I’d ever seen, I didn’t even know you could make them that small.)  The butter croissant was probably my least favorite out of all the ones tried – it was almost completely flat, as if the doughy layers inside were just too heavy to hold themselves up.  There was a decent flakiness to the outside crust, but inside there was a yeasty rather than buttery smell and taste; in fact, I couldn’t really taste any butter in it at all, although the inside was very greasy.  Overpriced for the quality.

Unfortunately their pain au chocolate was not much better.  It had a strange shiny, sticky glaze over the outside top layer which did not smell or taste good, and glued down all the flakiness; I actually had to peel off the top layer because I found it very unappetizing.   This croissant was also very flat, the dough layers were good but too heavy, and there was a very minimal amount of chocolate inside (I had a hard time even tasting it).  I couldn’t detect any butter taste at all, and like its companion, I wished it had been more airy and less heavy.

One bakery/cafe I can highly recommend that I’ve been to before but did not include in this review is Baguette et Chocolate Authentic French Bakery (12101 Bee Cave Rd, Bee Cave TX 78738), it’s just too far for me usually.  I did go to a few other bakeries that had been recommended but didn’t get croissants for them for different reasons:

  • Texas French Bread (2900 Rio Grande, Austin 78705) wanted $3.75 PER CROISSANT (!!!)…and they were about half the size of Quack’s bigger croissants; when I asked why they were so expensive I was told “we use real butter and cream.”  And?  Are those particular cows dipped in chocolate and rolled in gold shavings?  Sorry, those prices are way too high for me (and probably for most university students in the area, but they tend to cater to Austin’s “celebrity” clientele I hear, *coughlancearmstrongcough*).
  • Phoenicia Bakery (4701 Burnet, Austin 78756) told me they only make/offer croissants three days a week, but the guy behind the counter couldn’t tell me which specific days.  There were none available when I was there.
  • Bee’s Knees Bakeshop (109 Cypress Creek Rd, Cedar Park 78613) is gluten-free only, so they don’t make bread items like croissants.

Well, my job here is done.  I do believe I’ve eaten my last croissant for the next 12 months or so, and I may have to fast now for the rest of the Tour.  Next year’s Tour de France food review, I’ve already decided, will be the Battle of the Baguettes.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Summer Staycation Movies, Review #1: Legends, Lotteries and Loopholes

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“Winning will put any man into courage.” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, I, iv)

I’m off work for the next several weeks on a staycation summer break.  This time last year I was on a trip-of-a-lifetime in England on a 3-week jaunt around the country, including an amazing experience at the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in Leeds, Harrogate & York.  Since my bank account and credit cards can only handle a big trip like that every other year or so, this summer I’ll be:  watching the Tour in all its French fantasticality on TV, sampling croissants from various bakeries around town to accompany my Tour-watching, fish-mail-plant-and-baby-bird sitting for various family members who are all off on RV trips across America and Canada, and hopefully doing some freelance floral design work along with building aspects of my own business.  (For those of you wondering why I’m obsessed with the Tour de France each year, please refer back to this post from two years ago, still relevant today: Why I’m Still In Love With the Tour de France.)

I also thought I’d get in some quality movie time and pass along my FWIW reviews of the films I watch each week during vacation.  I’ll keep the reviews short and to the point, and maybe they’ll inspire some of you to watch (or avoid) them as well.  I’d like to focus on true old-movie classics (TCM-types) but I can’t promise that an ’80’s big hair gem or a current day blockbuster won’t sneak in there as well.  So without further ado, let’s get to the reviews of the movies I’ve watched since my vacation officially started last Friday:

1) Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967; Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton)

darg.600.1I’ve been a fan of this movie for many years now, but it’s probably been 10 or more years since I last watched it.  Those of you who know me best will understand why this film really hits home for me personally, but I also think it should be a movie that everyone should watch at some point.  I wish I could go back in time to experience the visceral societal reaction that this film elicited back in 1967, as it must’ve been a powerful window with which to peer in on humanity.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s the nutshell (and by the way the movie takes place all in the span of one day): Sidney Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice, a tropical medicine doctor who meets and quickly falls in love with Joey Drayton, a woman much younger than him who also happens to be white.  Joey brings John back to her parents’ home in San Francisco not only to introduce him to her aging parents, Matt & Christina (played by movie legends Tracy & Hepburn), but also to spring upon them that they’ve gotten engaged and plan to move to Switzerland together to be married (all in the span of a week).  The rest of the movie deals with the reactions of all the parents (John’s fly up from Los Angeles to have dinner with the group too) to this bombshell news and to the fact that their children are racing into an interracial marriage.

Despite its civil rights iconic status, the movie’s not without its faults.  The soundtrack consists of only one song, “Glory of Love,” played many different ways all throughout the film, and after about the second playing, you want to strangle the sound guy or producer who made that decision.  The missing lenses in Spencer Tracy’s glasses throughout the entire movie is distracting (why did they do that?).  And why wasn’t the huge age difference (15 years) between John and Joey more of an issue to her parents, she was practically a baby (I guess that wasn’t such a big deal back then but still).  But it more than makes up for those issues with two of the all-time greatest speeches in movie history: Hepburn’s awe-inspiring shakedown of her gallery assistant, and Tracy’s famous 8-minute life-lesson monologue at the end.  There’s also a really groovy dance spot between the house and the butcher’s van, man.

I have a newly found appreciation and soft spot for this movie now, both after my own life experience and after some research I did on it; it was only as of watching it a few days ago that I found out it was Spencer Tracy’s last film (he was in extremely poor health during the movie and died just 17 days after filming the last scene), and that Katharine Hepburn’s tears during his last monologue were real, as she knew they would never act together again, and that she would probably soon lose him.  She’d been his life partner for 26 years but theirs was a behind-the-scenes relationship, literally (he was married to someone else that whole time but he lived with Hepburn); watching her watch him in that last scene, and knowing that she would never watch the film once it came out (“it was too painful,” she said), that she would be the one to be with him to the very end, and that she would not attend his funeral out of respect for his family…it’s all so tragically poetic.  The movie makes you laugh and breaks your heart all at the same time; in my book that’s a good movie.

2) Waking Ned Divine (1998; Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flannagan)

large_5rpJUAq2CTRmYUxiWRlrllBsqsxWhat a great movie!  I also had not seen this movie in probably 8 or 10 years and forgot how funny it was in parts (in that kind of quirky British humor way).  In case you haven’t seen it yet I won’t give away too much of the plot, but it revolves around a small village in Ireland (really small, only 52 people) and what happens after one of them wins the national lottery.  And while the village of Tullymore is supposed to be set in Ireland, the movie was actually filmed on the Isle of Man – and that amazing scenery is definitely one of the stars.  The music is great too and there are plenty of good small Irish pub drinking scenes (yes even in a village of 52 people there is a neighborhood pub – OF COURSE, IT’S IRELAND).  But just a heads-up, I did have to put my closed captioning text on the screen so I could understand some of the thicker accents.

The two main characters of Jackie and Michael (played by Bannen and Kelly) are endearing from the start (those motorcycle goggles!), and the storyline keeps you hanging on through to the very end.  The subplot of Finn and his pigs and will-she-won’t-she Maggie is a little annoying but be sure to pay attention to the end answer of the Maurice question should you choose to watch.  I was sad to find out that Bannen died in a car accident the year after this film came out, what a fantastic smile and laugh he had.  Seeing this film again after now having been to some very tiny towns in England over the past few years made me wonder even more what small village life in those lands must really be like.  Where literally everyone knows everyone else down to the smallest detail and what they had for dinner…how strange that must be.

If you’re looking for a good little across-the-pond movie without violence or demons or foul language, then watch ‘Waking Ned Devine.’ (By the way, the movie is called just ‘Waking Ned’ in every country other than America, they added ‘Devine’ thinking Americans would like a longer title.)

3) Skyfall (2012; Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes)

Skyfall-Daniel-Craig2Ok last one for this week.  You know that sound between a sigh and a frustrated grunt that means ‘what the what,’ how does one spell that out?  Ucchhhuuuggcchh.  That’s how I felt about ‘Skyfall.’  Yes I know I may be the last adult in America (and definitely the last Anglophile) to have seen the latest (and 50th anniversary) 007 movie that came out two and a half years ago already, but truth be told I never could get into Daniel Craig as Bond.  I know I saw ‘Casino Royale’ when it came out, just out of curiosity, and I think I saw ‘Quantum of Solace’ but honestly I can’t be sure.  But when I noticed ‘Skyfall’ was premiering on network TV I decided to give it a go.

It’s pretty bad.  Especially for a Bond film, which has such high expectations.  I’m trying to like Craig, really I am, but he’s just so…dry.  He seems to literally have the same expression on his face through the entire movie.  But he wasn’t the worst part – those were the never-ending loopholes and belief-suspending moments that meant the movie basically made no sense whatsoever.  “Shouldn’t that just be what to expect from a Bond film, and instead just be satisfied with all the explosions and helicopters and inevitable top-of-train fight scenes?” you might ask.  Nope, not even all the special effects could make up for the skipping storyline in this one.

There wasn’t even a good badguy backstory, and those are key to Bond movies working well.  Javier Bardem seems to have been given free rein to make the character of Silva as weird and messed-up-by-mommy as he wanted, but the end effect was just weird and flat.  Every few minutes I found myself having to rewind as I thought I was missing a scene or two telling me how something happened, but no, the writers and/or producers must’ve thought we would just be too idiotic to notice huge storyline gaps.  All these huge moments in the film were never explained, the lack of Bond gadgets was very disappointing, and the end sequence was just too dumb to even go into.  I read that this movie was perhaps the most expensive movie ever made (or is that the next one), and this was the best they could come up with?  They need a real-life Bond to work some MI-6 miracles for the next script please.

What did I like about the 23rd Bond film?  I thought the new younger Q was a surprising-in-a-nice-way add (the actor playing him had good range), and when they brought out the old Bond’s classic Aston Martin to “go back in time,” I admit I cheered a little.  I liked that they ended up in Scotland in what seemed like a nod to Sean Connery.  I liked all the London street and rooftop scenes.  And…that’s about it.  I hear Daniel Craig is already signed up for the next two Bond movies and that the same director is in line for the them as well…which may mean I’ll be waiting awhile before I see my next Bond flick.  I’ll survive.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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