Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bouillabaisse on the Corniche and 'Hindi Food' in the skies

Often the image of a place is romantically etched on the mind from something one has read or seen. And, very often it leads to disappointment when reality confronts imagination. This has happened many times over in my life.

The picture of Marseilles for me was encapsulated in the reproduction of a Paul Cezzane masterpiece, I had come across in a magazine long ago. So, on this trip when I decided to venture out of Paris over a free weekend – I took a TGV ride down south to Marseilles. I would have been disappointed had it not been for a kind colleague at the company HQ, who recommended a small inn away from the bustle of the port town – yet not too far from the heart of action – on Corniche John F Kennedy.

The corniche, which is really a split level stairway extending over 2 kms is sometimes referred to as the longest bench in the world, opens out to a magnificent view of the Mediterranean. The small ships ferrying passengers to Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia going past against the backdrop of the Frioul islands make a beautiful mental snapshot.


The Bouillabaisse (pronounce buwee-a-bas) - once a poor fisherman’s stew made of discarded fish, has now been elevated to the ranks of fine food - is the signature dish of Marseilles. True to French tradition for exacting culinary standards, only restaurants that have signed the “Bouillabaisse Charter” are accredited as serving the authentic stuff . But, at a price tag of Euro 60 per serving – Chez Fon-Fon or Le Ruhl (of Jacques Chirac fame) it was well beyond the shoe-string budget of the humble keeper of this blog – who chose to settle for the more affordable fare at a mid-town café, leaving him appropriately under-whelmed.

'Paise Hotel' in Paris

Brought up on a staple of clichés and stereotypes, one always associated French Cuisine with Fine dining and Parisian Cafes – until I discovered this little hidden treasure in the by-lanes of the St Germaine area called Polidor (Cremerie Restaurant Polidor at 41 Rue Monsieur-le-Prince – near Theatre d l’Odeon). Near rustic in ambience, it can be described roughly as a French equivalent of a “paise hotel” in Calcutta – with no exclusive seating, sharing long tables with other guests who are accommodated as they come, waitresses almost throwing the plates at you while placing the bread-basket and pitchers of vin-de-table from casks.

Being an incorrigible creature of habit, it has become my regular haunt ever since I was introduced to it by a friend – so much so this time around I chose a hotel next to it to stay in. But, serving traditional fare it is a place for serious diners – typified by two old asterix look-alike Frenchmen seating next to me, who went through all the courses from the Fish Terrine to the Beef-tongue Piquante wrapped up with a rich Crème Brulee and Espresso. When I am not in a mood for the pickled duck roast or veal in lemon sauce – I fall for a little taste of home in the Pork Madras Curry, obviously transported from the Pondicherry connection. (and, btw - they don't accept credit cards)

Gender Matrix on Air

Airline food is generally bad and some are ‘more bad’. But occasionally one is pleasantly surprised. One meal I look forward to is the Indian selection on the Jet Airways London – Mumbai / Delhi sector. Catered from the Bombay Brassiere – it is one of the best ‘Hindi food’ ( as a friend’s young son, quite appropriately – I think, calls North Indian cuisine) I ever had – be it up in the air 35k feet asl or with feet firmly on terra firma. It could well be that, after days of Continental food the taste buds crave for some spicy titillation. But, by the same token, how come I don’t find the ‘desi khana’ on other international airlines as appetizing ?

Somehow, on Jet I always prefer the vegetarian option – which is usually more innovative in comparison to the “chicken tikka masala” variant in the non-vegetarian menu. This time I really relished the ‘Lauki ka Kofta’ with real home-style Arhar ki Dal. The desserts are a treat – tho’ I usually pass the Rabdi or the Firni for the irresistible Haagen Dazs Belgian Chocolate Ice-cream.

Moving on to another 'in-flight' experience - tho' not of the culinary kind, on this trip – I came across a lady in a business suit moving around the cabin, who distinctly looked like a staff in mufti. Upon enquiring, I learnt that she was an ‘in-flight auditor checking on the quality of service. A short conversation later, she told me that recently the airline had a high turnover of staff – and they found such on-the-job training really useful for the new recruits. She taught me another new term “gender matrix” , that is apparently skewed a wee bit in favour of the male crews on international sectors and which they were trying to correct by inducting more women on board.

It is for these continuous innvovations and attention to details of customer service, Jet gets my vote for sheer professionalism – on ground or high in the skies.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Masti ka Pathshala

We were late parents. So – the kids of many dear friends and contemporaries are either well into college enjoying their share of young adult-hood or preparing frenetically for their school leaving examinations. And, the slightly older ones are getting ready for their nuptials – while our darling daughter is just about beginning to discover the joys and tribulations of her early teens – tucked away in the pristine preserves of the Sahyadri hills .

It’s examination season and with nearly 15 lakh kids appearing for CBSE alone, the TV Channels and Newspapers have been whipping up a frenzy for anxious parents – to fill in their prime time slots before Election fever grips the country. We had none of this in our times - so it’s all quite alien to me anyway. But, at a very different level, I have been drawn in over the past few weeks into a conversation on a fellow bloggers site (Cuckoo's Cosmos….click here to read ) between parents who are contemplating putting their children into Rishi Valley – the original Krishnamurty (KFI) institution. The obvious question – which we are asked very often in the context of our sending Jaya to Sahyadri – is, whether children studying in such “non-conventional” schools lose their competitive edge, which most parents – justifiably – believe is so essential for surviving in today’s cut-throat world.

Frankly, I don’t have a strong view either way – each I’m sure has its own merits and downsides. Neither Nina nor I come from a boarding school background. Apart from the children of a few close friends, the only ones in our extended family circle who have studied in a “public school” away from home are my dear cousin (2nd – as she never fails to point out) Tush and her brother Papu. We known a few Rishi Valley “products” – but that was just about it. We were also not steeped in Jiddu Krishnamurty’s philosophy or his ideas on education. But, when we decided to send Jaya to a boarding, we were very clear in our mind that it had to be a school like Rishi Valley.

In what appears like serendipity now in hindsight – we had visited Sahyadri soon after the school was set up in the mid 90s at the behest of a senior colleague of HLL. We had come away very impressed with what we saw. Jaya had just about come into our life and we had no clue at that point that we would ever consider sending her to a boarding. We wanted Jaya to be in a “non-pressure” environment. So Sahyadri was a natural choice. (Read Back to School by clicking here)

For us it wasn't a giant leap of faith (unlike an uncle of mine who pulled his two sons out of school on the instruction of their spiritual 'guru' and taught them at home. Both kids, incidentally, have done extremely well in their chosen fields of academics). We put Jaya there for our own set of considerations which we recognize may not apply to others. Though I’d be less than honest if I were to say that, we don’t have our moments of doubt.

Such moments of self-questioning arise – especially while visiting friends around the time of their children’s exams (not necessarily those in their last years of school but also those in the junior classes) when the atmosphere of tension is almost palpable in the house. Similar thoughts also cross my mind at the Parents Teachers Meeting – when I compare by distant recollection what I studied at her age and worry if they are being taught at a level – that’s a notch lower than what the Board syllabus would warrant for the class.

But then, I also think of the myriad other things they are learning - that we never had the opportunity for in a city school. The results of the previous batches – which though not skewed towards the high nine-tees are not at the bottom of the scale either - also bolster confidence. So they must have cracked the code somewhere and built a method into their system - otherwise, it’s not for nothing that the KFI schools have been around for over 75 years now with alumni straddling different walks of life.

The kids, of course, love it once they get over the initial joining pangs. Till the 7th Standard – it’s virtually a ‘masti ka path-shala’. It is only in the 8th when the hormones and exams kick in – does one notice a few spells of blue that come with the first intimations of reality. But then, like the hormones I am told this too is a passing phase.

But I think it is not just English and Maths or Physics, Chemistry, Bio that matter. Nor is it the Games, Arts and Music. It goes much beyond studies and the extra-curricular add-ons. In fact, the high-end Boarding schools have much more to offer in comparison.

I remember – the time we had gone for the interview the parents sat around the matted floor of the assembly hall for an open question and answer session with the Principal. One of the parents remarked – “But Sir, you will agree that the ultimate test will be ICSE”. The young Principal chuckled a little and said with a smile – “ICSE is an important test – but I am not sure if it’s the ultimate test. They will have to face many other tests in life and hopefully we prepare them for those in some small way”. He couldn’t have summed up our expectation better.

Related Blog Post: "Back to School" (click here to read)