pumpkins at prairie gardens

Last weekend I celebrated my birthday a few days early out at Prairie Gardens with family and friends.  It was a chilly & snowy day, but we had a lot of fun.  Their Haunted Pumpkin Festival has been running all month (October) and the last day was on Sunday.  I reserved one of their fire pits (perfect for roasting hotdogs and marshmallows), but luckily they also gave us a space inside one of the heated greenhouses.

We checked out the little corn maze on site (the really big one is down the road a bit), the corncob cannon, the petting zoo, 'build-a-scarecrow' and alllll the pumpkins.

As an added bonus, they invited us to take as many pumpkins as we wanted because it was the very last day of the season!  We loaded up the car with all sorts of varieties - creamy white ones, variegated ones, super-big bright orange ones, lumpy-bumpy ones - you name it, they had them all out at Prairie Gardens.

Everyone had fun out at the farm, and it was a great activity to do outside of the usual stuff in Edmonton.  I'd definitely make a trip back out to Prairie Gardens next spring!

le macaron: pierre hermé vs. mcdonalds

Yes, you did read that correctly...McDonald's (in Paris) does sell macarons.  On my previous visits to Paris I had always scoffed and turned my nose up at the thought of eating a macaron from McDonalds, but this time, curiosity got the better of me...what if they were actually...good?  On the other hand we have Pierre Hermé - internationally know for their top quality confections (and they have the prettiest macarons I've ever seen).  I was in heaven the moment I walked into the shop - it was a feast for the eyes and I never wanted to leave.

There simply wasn't any possible way to do a 'blind' taste test.  Trev and I knew it would be obvious which was which, but we were going to give them each equal consideration.

I'm going to start with the macaron from Pierre Hermé because they were, without a doubt, the BEST macaron I've ever eaten.  Seriously.  First of all, their flavour combinations were spectacular - so smart and unexpected (therefore intriguing to the palate).  We shared a box of 12, so we sampled quite a few flavours.  Lemon & carmelized fennel, aniseed & saffron, pistachio with ceylon cinnamon & morello cherries, lemon & hazelnut praline, jasmine tea, peach apricot & saffron, passionfruit & chocolate...and there were a few standards too - their caramel with fleur de sel was outstanding - the caramel had a deep browned taste that really stood out.  Also their dark chocolate macaron with ganache filling was deeply satisfying, but 1/2 a macaron was enough.  Beyond the amazing flavours of Pierre Hermé's macarons, the texture was perfect.  The delicate little shells had a nice little crunch that gave way to the soft, moist cookie within and the texture of the butter cream was spot-on.  Perfection.  I think it's dangerous that they ship internationally...in a moment of weakness I could see myself buying a box of 24 macarons online...

I thought I'd also add in a quick note of comparison to Ladurée, the other elite of macronage in Paris.  I tried their macaron in April (read about it here).  I think Ladurée sticks a lot closer to classic flavours, nothing too outside the box.  I think in April I had been slightly disappointed in my flavour selections - I like ganache or buttercream fillings, rather than gelee - so my opinion may have been slightly skewed.  But there's something else that made Pierre Hermé a favourite - the shop itself.  The staff were incredibly friendly and invited me to take as many pictures as I wanted, whereas when I was at Ladurée photos were forbidden and the staff shuffled us through the line without any added pleasantry.  Sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference.  If anyone else has an opinion on Pierre Hermé vs. Ladurée, I'd be curious to know what you think.

Alright, on to the McDonald's macarons - overall they were not awful.  The winner of the bunch was pistachio - it tasted pretty good and if you were in the mood to cram your mouth full of macarons, it would do the trick.  The chocolate one was also good - it had a really fudgy flavour and texture.  The vanilla was just ok - it had a strong artificial vanilla taste.  The red fruit & mango macarons were just 'meh' - I'm not into the gelee filling and the flavours weren't that good.  The one that made us both go "blech" was the passionfruit (orange colour), so much so that after we each took a nibble we dropped the rest back in the box to throw out.

So would I recommend buying macarons from McDonalds when visiting Paris?  No.  (My first choice would be Pierre Hermé, obviously)  There are so many fabulous little patisseries with display cases crammed with all kinds of delicious treats, including macarons, all over town.  I think it would be much more rewarding to discover a hidden gem with amazing macarons then give in to McDonalds just for the sake of convenience.  BUT, if you're wandering around Paris with sore, tired feet and you really need to use a bathroom, why not stop into McDonalds and buy a few macarons in order to gain access to their toilet? Just stay away from the passionfruit ones.

a picnic at versailles

On the weekend we joined Fat Tire Bike Tours for their Versailles tour.  We started by hopping on the RER train out of town and picked up our trusty bikes in the town of Versailles.  It was a short ride from there to the nearby market to pick up goodies for a picnic later.  Our tour guide, Dan, pointed us in the direction of a wine shop and a little bakery nearby and we picked up some cheeses, meat and olives in the market.

I couldn't resist a chocolate-banana crepe before we took off on the bikes.  It was soooo delicious and the guy making them was hilarious.  He was full of French flirtation - flattering, but it gave me the giggles.

With my sweet tooth satisfied and the bikes loaded with bottles of wine and baguettes, we pedalled off into the gardens of Versailles.  It was so peaceful biking through the lanes, lined with perfectly manicured trees.  As we rode we stopped to look at Marie-Antoinette's hamlet, the Petit Trianon and the Grand Trianon.  Our tour guide did a great job of sharing the stories and history of the buildings.

We biked all the way around the grand canal - I imagined Louis XIV watching mock naval battles from the steps of the Chateau.  The canal was enormous and when we came around the corner the Chateau was a truly astounding sight (as I was pointing excitedly and wobbling on my bike).  Unfortunately a few raindrops started to fall, but it didn't stop us from enjoying our picnic under the shelter of the trees.

Trev and I enjoyed a lovely bottle of beaujolais blanc with a delicious chewy baguette, some serrano ham, green olive tapenade and some little goat cheeses (some of them tasted more like stinky feet than others...)  It was the perfect picnic - what better way to enjoy a visit to the gardens of Versailles.  It really was wonderful.

Next we went a little further on our bikes to the Chateau du Versailles.  The palace is absolutely astounding - the size (2300 rooms) and detail were unbelievable.  Luckily there wasn't any lineup, so we walked right in.  We breezed through the museum rooms fairly quickly because our tour guide had already given us tons of great info.  The rooms were all so elaborate - gilded with gold and draped with rich silks and velvets.  I loved all the huge windows that looked out onto the gardens.  The hall of mirrors was lovely, even filled up with tourists like me.

Marie-Antoinette's table in her suite, oooh fancy

Before we headed back to Paris we enjoyed a walk through the perfectly manicured & symmetrical gardens.  The neat & tidy hedges were so perfect and I loved the orange trees in the garden.

raspberry love

I looooove raspberries.  Tart, sweet, juicy, beautiful little summer gems.

Recently I headed out to

Roy's Raspberries

with a couple girlfriends to pick raspberries.  The picking was good and it didn't take us long to fill our three ice cream buckets.  We picked two buckets of regular raspberries, then headed over to the back raspberry patch and loaded up a bucket with some of the specialty varieties, including the sweet & mild golden raspberries.

The folks out at Roy's Raspberries are so nice.  My friends and I had a lot of fun hanging out in the sun while picking berries (we may have sampled a few as we were picking...)  An ice cream bucket full of berries only cost $15!

After our buckets were full we headed back to Caitlin's house for dinner.  While dinner was in the oven I gave the girls a pie-making lesson (here's my

pie crust recipe

).  We made some tasty Bumbleberry pies (sorry, no finished product picture - I was enjoying and forgot!)

Berries pre-pie.  mmmmm.....

alkmaar cheese market

cheese headed to market

cheese headed to market

The cheese market in Alkmaar has been an institution since 1593.  The market happens on Fridays from mid-April to mid-September and during a market day an average of 30,000 kilograms of Gouda and Edam cheese are sold.  Holy smokes that's a lot of cheese!  All those big golden wheels of cheese were quite a sight when they were all lined up in the square.

The market starts at 10am and opens with a bell-ringing.  The cheese is inspected for taste, smell, moisture, fat content and appearance, then the bidding starts.  After a deal has been made, the cheese is carried to the scale by members of the cheese carriers guild and weighed.  After it has been weighed the guild carries 8 wheels of cheese at a time on a cart to the buyer's waiting truck.  Each wheel of cheese weighs about 13.5 kg, so when the cart is loaded it weighs about 130 kg, that's a lot!

The cheese-carrier's guild has always played an important role.  They continue to wear the traditional costume, with coloured straw hats (which shows what team they're on) with a white suit.  They zipped around the square, carting the cheese, stacking new piles - it was a lot of fun to watch.

Going to the cheese market was a lot of fun, and it was one of the things I wanted to do during my time in the Netherlands, so I was really glad I got to see it with my family.  Alkmaar is really pretty, and would be worth another visit - both for the town, and the cheese.

Here's a link to an Alkmaar City Guide with more info and history. 

we had to duck down in the boat to make it under some of the low bridges during our canal boat tour

we had to duck down in the boat to make it under some of the low bridges during our canal boat tour