Nov. 4th, 2007 02:51 pm
fivemack: (Default)
Last week, I was at the PSDI conference in Autrans, a small farming town in the mountains near (ten kilometres as the crow flies, forty-five minutes and €80 as the road winds and the taxi drives) Grenoble.

It was French, so the food was copious - hot chocolate and croissants for breakfast, four-course lunches to go with the four-course dinners, and no table at any stage without its bottle of wine of each colour. Cuisse de oie as the main course for lunch one day, terrine de foie gras served with a glass of Sauternes as the starter for dinner the next, and plenty of time to enjoy the selection of local cheeses before dessert turns up.

The normal conference attractions: insanely complicated slides (this one coming from a talk in which a large and serious team at Novartis discovered that three techniques for telling whether your drug-like molecule has linked to your protein gave completely different results)

a cultural visit (the expressions on the faces of a large number of microbiologists as they watch a team of assistant cheese-makers without gloves carefully rubbing mould fibres off a huge pile of cheeses are well worth the imagining)

and a site visit to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, with trips down to see the marvellous contraptions which are beam-lines

On the left is a device for spectroscopy on mounted crystals; the hedgehog of beam-launching telescopes is fed by optic fibres from a collection of large lasers mounted on the next bench, the microscope at the top is attached to a box full of diffraction gratings to analyse the light that comes out, and the thin metal tube on the right blows liquid nitrogen at the whole thing to keep it cold.

On the right is a 'mini-kappa', a device for twiddling crystals so that they are lined up in a desirable way, so that you can observe things the small differences between which are critically important to phasing the data at the same time, rather than one at the start of the experiment and one after the crystal has been blasted with X-rays for half an hour. After half an hour of X-ray exposure the crystal will usually explode as it warms up - the X-rays make carboxylic acid groups fall off and turn into high-pressure carbon dioxide inside the crystal.

I got a couple of hours in Grenoble proper, on a rather grey day. The city spreads out over a flat bit at the intersection of two rivers, with a comprehensively fortified mountain starting on the right bank of the Isère. I took the cable-car up to the fortress and walked down, with excellent panoramic views of Grenoble laid out below me, starting just as my camera broke down.

Next year's will be in England; hosted by Glaxo, and probably in the neighbourhood of Stevenage. I'm not sure how the cultural visit, or indeed the food, will compare.
fivemack: (Default)
I've had two elaborate restaurant meals in Cambridge this week, which is two more than I have most months.

The first was last Wednesday [ profile] ghoti's 29th birthday, for which she'd booked the downstairs room at 22 Chesterton Road. They had excellent bread: a really malty, cinnamonny fruit loaf, a really nutty brown and a really rosemary-ridden white. I had a red wine risotto as starter, wonderfully fishy haddock served on some kind of seaweed base as main course, and a particularly unsubtle pudding composed of a lake of salt-caramel inside a square of chocolate hazelnut mousse, served with chocolate and milk sorbets and a wafer-thin hazelnut biscuit the shape of Wisconsin.

After one evening of gourmet delectation, proposals for a second evening of gourmet delectation go down more easily; I'd been looking forward to seeing [ profile] nou, who I'd met at Oxford and not seen for years, on Wednesday but she couldn't make it. So she organised another meal, at the newly-opened Alimentum on Hills Road; me, [ profile] nou, [ profile] ewx and [ profile] karen2205 who I'd encountered on IRC but never in person.

Leather chairs, wall-covering seemingly made of satin pillows, a big glass window to encourage people-watching if only the Cambridge Leisure Centre was a haunt of people worth the watching at eight on a Tuesday evening, slightly intrusive background music, a general sense of slightly OTT deliberate poshness. Cocktails to start - gin and blackberry for me. As a starter, smoked eel, served with potatoes, microtomed artichoke and a couple of thin slices of truffle, little cubes of tasty jelly which on request turned out to be balsamic-vinegar flavour. Clearly excellent eel, though I'm not sure truffle in slices is a taste I'm so keen on. The others had a single chicken raviolo served with mushrooms and baked jamon iberico.

The main meal for me was lamb done three ways; slices of neck cooked pink, a sweetbread (I had traded haddock for a bit of [ profile] uisgebeatha's sweetbread at the previous restaurant, and liked the dumpling texture and sheep-pate taste), and a little pot of a moussaka made with lamb braised to dissolution, and raisins. Others had bavette of beef - a very large slab of beautifully-cooked cow - and sea bass.

For dessert ([ profile] nou has pictures) I had a deconstructed apricot crumble; a clingfilm-thin piece of hard caramel, a swoosh of apricot jus, a blob of just-barely-mashed apricot, and an ice cream, topped with crumble topping, that itself tasted of crumble topping.

These are both fancy restaurants - 22 was £45 a head, Alimentum £55 a head, wine and service included - but both worth it when you've assembled a critical mass of friends to whom the prospect of really fantastic food is more appealing than money. I only have to forgo Monday pizza and Thursday liver-and-bacon at the pub for the month of August to break even, and it's probably well worth it.

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